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 phones and 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.
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 6 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.
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 Services, the 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.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.