State prisons resuming in-person visits, programming

After lawsuits, COVID-19 deaths, and suicide, a new normal

THE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION has announced it will continue reopening its facilities as a part of its Phase 3 reopening plan.  

In a message to the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus on Tuesday, the DOC, which oversees the state’s prisons, said “it will be announcing the advancement to Phase 3 in its COVID re-opening plan on a rolling-basis across facilities.”  

The DOC locked down state prisons because of the pandemic in mid-March, allowing prisoners half an hour a day to use phoneand showers. Visitors were banned and staff were screened for coronavirus symptoms.  

On a rolling basis throughout September, in-person visits at medium and maximum security facilities will resume on a limited basis, and by appointment. There will be a two-person visitor limit for each prisoner 

Ordinarily, visitation guidelines stipulate two adults per prisoner, with children not counting towards visitor count. In order for the system to comply with the state’s Phase 3 regulations, children will be counted toward the visitation maximum.  No physical contact between prisoners and visitors will be allowed, and face coverings have to be worn by all parties at all times.

Drug treatment services were provided on a full-time basis starting Tuesday, and chaplains also returned for in-person visits for the first time since March.   

Educational and vocational programming will resume in a hybrid model, with prisoners using both in-person and video courses. Remote learning and in-person learning will be dependent on whether the rooms they’re conducted in are big enough for social distancing of feet or more.  

Teachers are planning to return on September 14, college professors on September 28, and librarians on September 8.   

“DOC remains committed to the safety and health of inmates, staff, and visitors, and we continue to monitor test results and other public health data at each facility and in the broader community as we move carefully toward reopening,” said Jason Dobson, a spokesman for the DOC.  

As of Tuesday, there was only one active case of COVID-19 among more than 7,000 state prisoners. During the pandemic, 383 tested positive for COVID-19 and recovered. Over a hundred staff and vendors also contracted the virus.  

Eight prisoners died during the early months of the pandemic at Mass Treatment Center in Bridgewater and MCI-Shirley. 

In April 2020, 14 people died in Massachusetts state prisons, more than any other month in the past five years, according to an analysis by Bridget Conley, an associate professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Five of those were attributed to COVID-19.  

Despite the low death number, experts say that the infection rate of COVID-19 in Massachusetts jails and prisons is nearly three times that of the state’s general population from April to July. The new study, from researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard University, found that the rate of infection was also five times the Urate. 

Some facilities saw more of the virus than others. Among the 218 female prisoners at MCI-Framingham in April, for example, the rate was nearly 10 times that of the overall state prison population, with 17 prisoners, or 7.8 percent of the facility’s population, infected.    

Many advocates, including those at Prisoners’ Legal Services and the ACLU of Massachusetts, argued that decarceration could reduce the spread of the virus by limiting the amount of people in confined space. 

In one case filed by the ACLU, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled in April that some prisoners would be eligible to seek release because of the pandemic. This doesn’t impact too many state prisoners, since it mostly applies to those awaiting trial. More importantly, the court required the state’s prison system to provide data for a daily and now weekly report showing positive cases, testing, and deaths. In a similar case, filed by Prisoners’ Legal Servicesthe court refused to release prisoners that had been convicted 

Advocates have emphasized that the impact on prisoners isn’t just about death. 

The COVID pandemic has taken a terrible toll on people in prison, not just on those who have already contracted the virus, but on all the other people who have been forced to live for months under unprecedented lockdown conditions with little or no access to rehabilitation programs, visits, and medical care,” said James Pingeon, the litigation director at Prisoners’ Legal Services.  

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Living situations quite similar to solitary confinement began wearing on the mental health of prisoners. In June, one prisoner was found hanging in his cell at MCI-Walpole. Social workers and attorneys have also reported a decrease in morale as prisoners remain confined to a single room for up to 23 hours a day.  

Pingeon said the organization is pleased that conditions are slowly returning to normal, but they’re still “extremely concerned” about how the DOC will respond to potential outbreaks of the infection in the future.