Lawsuit seeks release of sentenced prisoners during coronavirus
Prisoner at MCI-Framingham talks about conditions, new roommate
A NEW CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT filed in the state’s highest court by advocates aims to release sentenced and civilly committed prisoners to stem the spread of coronavirus in prisons.
Prisoners’ Legal Services filed the suit on behalf of 11 named inmates and others “similarly situated,” saying that the Department of Correction has “failed to implement readily available measures to save lives by radically reducing the number of people in prisons.”
The lawsuit said the state is failing to maintain social distancing between inmates. “Prisoners continue to be housed in close contact with each other in dormitory-style settings and double cells that do not meet the minimum space requirements established by the Department of Public Health,” attorneys wrote.
In a previous decision by a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court —filed by the ACLU of Massachusetts and Committee for Public Counsel Services —the state was ordered to release inmates who were awaiting trials or show why they shouldn’t be released. That decision resulted in more than 400 prisoners being released.
Prisoners named in the lawsuit have heart failure, a liver transplant, and stage four kidney disease. Some are eligible for parole as soon as June 2020. One plaintiff, 72-year-old Frederick Yeomans, is imprisoned in the Barnstable County Correctional Facility for driving with a suspended license and is eligible for early release later this year.
Another plaintiff at MCI-Concord is described as living in a prison dormitory with over 80 other people who sleep in bunk beds just three feet apart.
The prisoners are asking to be released to home confinement, including through medical furloughs and expedited parole hearings. The lawsuit seeks the release of 100 men who are civilly committed for alcohol and substance abuse disorders, for which treatment is not being provided during the pandemic.
The Department of Correction declined to comment on the lawsuit, with spokesman Jason Dobson saying the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
COVID-19 is a growing problem in the state prison system. At MCI-Framingham, 26 of the 198 prisoners have COVID-19, or 13 percent of the population. Kimya Foust, a prisoner there, described the facility as being locked down for 23 ½ hours a day in a message to Commonwealth.
Foust said she’s concerned about the close proximity of her fellow inmates, saying that she had been alone in her own cell before the pandemic, but recently was assigned a roommate.
“God watch over each of us in this world-wide pandemic,” she wrote, adding that several friends and family have called the prison asking for her release during the COVID-19 crisis.
Foust’s mother, Thomasina Baker, said in an interview that her daughter is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 because she has diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression, which have been listed as underlying conditions by the Centers for Disease Control. “I’m afraid she’ll contract it,” said Baker. “As a parent, as a mom, when I don’t hear from her and knowing she now has a roommate…there’s a lot of anxiety.”
Five prisoners at state facilities have died from COVID-19, the latest a man who died at an area hospital near MCI-Shirley, where he was incarcerated. Twenty-two others at Shirley have tested positive, along with nine staff members and vendors, according to the Department of Correction. The four other deaths occurred at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, where 37 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19.
Across all state prison facilities, 105 prisoners and 63 vendors and staff have tested positive. At MCI-Shirley, the number of cases has gone from 9 to 29 in less than five days.
About 8,000 people are incarcerated in the state prison system, but only 200 tests have been administered. The DOC says it proctored over 200 tests to prisoners, 105 of which were positive. Around 656 prisoners have been tested across all correctional facilities, both state and county.
Information supplied by county sheriffs and the Massachusetts Department of Correction and counties must be published weekly to fulfill the requirement of the last Supreme Judicial Court ruling.
The county data from those reports it more haphazard- with the most recent, there were 54 prisoners in jails that had tested positive, with the greatest number being 35 in Essex County. The report notes that there are around 6,700 people in county jails.