COVID-19 outbreak at Plymouth substance abuse center

28 of 97 civilly committed men test positive, quarantined

THE STATE PRISON system is seeing a hotspot of COVID-19 among those civilly committed at the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center in Plymouth.

The Department of Correction said on Friday that 28 of the 97 male patients at the facility have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and been moved to a separate wing of the facility. None have required hospital care so far, and four have been released. An additional 11 staffers tested positive and will not return until medically cleared for work.

The testing was prompted by an individual who tested positive for the virus following his release around September 23.

The Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center in Plymouth houses a population of adult males civilly-committed for up to 90-day treatment periods and its day-to-day operations are managed by Wellpath medical staff. Correctional officers do not work at the facility.

An April lawsuit intended to reduce the density of prisoners at the height of the pandemic also sought release of patients civilly committed for addiction treatment. Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts filed the class action on behalf of 11 prisoners and “all others similarly situated.”

Lizz Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, called the number of people infected at the Plymouth facility “a staggering number.” She added: “This is very concerning news, especially in light of the fact that we were in court yesterday on our COVID litigation during which the DOC maintained to the judge that they had zero cases.”

In a decision issued by the late Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, additional safeguards were put in place to ensure those civilly committed would not be incarcerated unless absolutely necessary.

“This is exactly why,” said Matos.

Attorneys at Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state agency overseeing legal representation for indigent defendants, are concerned about what the spike could mean moving forward.

“The infection rate at MASAC is disturbing if not out of control,” said Mark Larsen, director of the mental health litigation division. “We are seeing an uptick in the number of people being petitioned, and it is concerning that our clients – current and future – can and will be placed at a facility that has not been able to contain this deadly virus.”

Since April, all patients admitted to the Plymouth facility have been quarantined upon admission, tested for COVID-19, and only moved into the general population after a negative test result and the completion of their intake quarantine period.

Unlike most Department of Correction facilities, the population at the substance abuse facility has lower security and a higher turnover rate because it receives people who are civilly committed by the court for up to 90-day periods. Patients in Plymouth have no interaction with or exposure to inmates at other facilities.

The department said it has halted all new admissions to the Plymouth facility until further notice, with new court commitments going instead to a Hampden County facility in Ludlow.

The Department of Correction has been conducting testing more vigorously since an April decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court required the metric to be included in weekly reports to the court.

For the first few months of the pandemic, several DOC facilities sustained a high rate of COVID-19 infections among prisoners, twice the statewide average at one point. At MCI-Framingham, for example, 26 of the 198 prisoners, or 13 percent of the inmates, had COVID-19 on April 17. There are now no prisoners with COVID-19 at MCI-Framingham according to figures reported to the Supreme Judicial Court.

Eight state prisoners have died over the course of the pandemic. Two have died in county facilities.

Since July 1, there have been only four new cases of COVID-19 among inmates at DOC correctional facilities, and those were inmates who contracted the virus prior to admission.  All other test results have been negative, the department said.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Freelance reporter, Formerly worked for CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, 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 long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, 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.

In addition to the new cases at the Plymouth facility this week, there are 15 new cases among correctional staff at other prison locations.

To date, more than 10,000 COVID-19 tests have been conducted across DOC facilities, which collectively house about 6,900 people.