SJC sides with sheriffs in COVID testing case
Jails don’t have to conduct surveillance screening
WHEN THE SUPREME Judicial Court justices heard a case about whether sheriffs needed to do more COVID testing in jails, they sounded skeptical, questioning why more screening was necessary when vaccines were readily available.
This week, the SJC confirmed that view, deciding unanimously that the county jails do not need to implement regular testing of asymptomatic prisoners.
The Committee for Public Counsel Services and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers had sued the state’s 13 sheriffs, seeking to require the jails to conduct weekly COVID surveillance testing of all inmates. Their argument was that the CDC recommends regular testing for correctional facilities, so houses of correction are exhibiting “deliberate indifference” to inmates’ health by not providing it.
The court, however, in a 42-page decision written by Justice Elspeth Cypher, rejected that argument. The court found that the CDC guidelines are “mere recommendations, not mandates.” The jails are fulfilling their duty to inmates through the COVID precautions they are taking: testing people with symptoms; isolating sick individuals; enhancing hygiene; and most significantly, offering the COVID vaccine to all inmates and staff.
The defense lawyers had also argued that the jails should be doing more to reduce their prison populations and that two county jails – in Bristol and Essex counties – need to provide better videoconferencing for attorneys to meet with their incarcerated clients. The court rejected both those arguments as well.
One issue hanging over multiple cases related to COVID precautions in correctional facilities is Gov. Charlie Baker’s mandate requiring all executive branch officers to get the COVID vaccine. In another case before the SJC regarding whether the Department of Correction is doing enough to reduce the state prison population, the mandate came up in oral arguments, with attorneys for the state arguing that high vaccination rates make it easier to show that the state has met its burden of caring for inmates’ health without additional efforts like releasing prisoners.
The union representing correction officers this week filed a lawsuit in federal court to delay Baker’s mandate, saying it interferes with their right to “decline unwanted medical treatment.”A similar effort by state police troopers to delay the mandate was rejected by a state judge.
The SJC ruling in the testing case – which involves county, not state, facilities and was argued before Baker imposed the vaccine mandate – did not discuss vaccine uptake rates other than mentioning how many staff and prisoners have been vaccinated. It also noted that, at the time the case was argued, vaccine uptake was voluntary. But in looking at COVID-related cases going forward, particularly the case over population reduction, the top state justices will almost certainly be keeping an eye on how the federal court handles the vaccine mandate.