Prisoners get high priority for vaccine

Advocates hail decision but continue to press for releases

ADVOCATES FOR THE 13,000 people incarcerated at state and county jails praised the Baker administration on Wednesday for deciding to give prisoners and prison officials early access to the COVID-19 vaccine, but said they would continue to press state officials to release inmates early.

“It is commendable that the governor recognizes that prisoners should be given priority for vaccines, both because they are more vulnerable and because large outbreaks in the prisons endanger the community as a whole,” said Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services.

But Matos said her organization will continue to press for early release of sentence prisoners though its lawsuit against the state. “We still have a long way to go before the danger of COVID in the prison system will be over,” she said.

“There is still an urgent need for DOC to take immediate action to reduce the prison population by using home confinement and other means in order to prevent more sickness, hospitalizations, and death.”

At a State House press conference, Baker and members of a vaccine advisory group said congregate care settings, including prisons and jails, would be among the first to receive the vaccine, along with frontline health care workers and nursing home residents and staff. Aides to the governor confirmed that the policy covers inmates at state prisons and county jails along with staff.

Dr. Paul Biddinger, chair of the vaccine advisory board and director of the Center for Disaster Medicine at Massachusetts General Brigham, said the panel felt strongly that people who live in congregate care settings, which are by definition high density places, should be a priority.

“We know [congregated care settings] are a documented risk factor, not just for single individuals, but by large populations being exposed to COVID and becoming ill at the same time,” he said.

“From an equity perspective, where people are at risk and together in the same situation, we felt it was really important to prioritize that group,” Biddinger added.

Mallory Hanora, executive director of Families for Justice as Healing, said Biddinger is right but the Baker administration should also begin decarcerating the prisons.  Hanora cited a letter signed by 176 public health and medical experts calling on Baker to decrease the number of inmates in jails – a number that is higher now than it was in April, when that letter was sent. Since then, the DOC has released only 31 sentenced prisoners, according to state data.

“It’s a moral imperative that Governor Baker both order releases of as many people as possible as soon as possible and ensure incarcerated people have immediate and consensual access to the vaccine,” said Hanora.

Over 4,400 prisoners have been released from county correctional facilities, mostly to home confinement with electronic ankle monitors, since the beginning of the pandemic. It is unclear how many of those were released as a result of an April Supreme Judicial Court decision, and how many had release dates already set.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, 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.

There continues to be surges in cases at county jails. In Essex County, 40 prisoners currently have COVID-19. The county says most are asymptomatic and testing is ongoing as needed. In Hampden County, 82 prisoners and 34 staff members had COVID-19 as of Friday. There were 13 cases at Suffolk County’s jail and House of Correction as of Thursday.

Outbreaks at the state prisons have been even larger. A prisoner recently died at MCI-Norfolk, where cases climbed to 172 in November. That number has dropped to 43 on Wednesday. MCI-Shirley has seen a large outbreak, and MCI-Concord has had multiple spikes in the past month, with today’s positive cases at 161. Fourteen people are currently hospitalized in DOC custody. The agency continues testing, and has also seen large numbers of staff test positive.

The Prisoners’ Legal Services lawsuit seeking to force the DOC to release sentenced prisoners to a home confinement program is pending. Superior Court Judge Robert Ullmann is expected to rule on the case by next Friday.