THE MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT of Correction says eight prisoners, one staff member, and one medical provider have tested positive for coronavirus – all of them at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater.
Another staff member at the correctional institution at Shirley tested positive as well, bringing the total number of infected within the Department of Correction to 11.
The runup in cases at the Bridgewater facility is particularly concerning because prisoner advocates have been claiming that an outbreak inside any prison would spread rapidly within the population.
The jump in cases comes as the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the Committee for Public Counsel Services, and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed an emergency petition asking the Supreme Judicial Court to reduce the number of those incarcerated at Massachusetts jails and prisons.
The petition asks the SJC to require trial court judges to account for the threat of COVID-19 in jails and prisons when they analyze the need for pretrial detention. The petition also seeks the release of other prisoners, including those who do not pose a threat to public safety and those nearing the end of their sentences who pose no threat.
Paula Carey, the chief justice of the Trial Court, could not be reached for comment.
“Public health experts recognize that there is a heightened risk of infection for people in prisons and jails,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Downsizing the footprint of the criminal legal system is a matter of life and death, and it should be a part of the COVID-19 public health response.”
On a county level, the Plymouth County Sheriff’s office confirmed Monday that an employee tested for COVID-19 and received positive results on Sunday.
There are roughly 16,500 people incarcerated in Massachusetts. According to the Department of Correction’s weekly count, there are 8,000 people in DOC facilities, and 8,500 in houses of correction and county jails.
At least eight state and local court systems—in Alabama, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, and Washington—as well as the District of Columbia, have already taken steps to limit incarceration during the spread of COVID-19.
The advocacy groups wrote in the emergency petition that physical distancing “is impossible in these facilities,” and references a quarterly report on the status of prison capacity put out by the Department of Correction in 2019. That report said nine state and seven county facilities are straining beyond 100 percent capacity, and the Bristol Dartmouth facility is operating at 278 percent capacity.
“There are hundreds of vulnerable people behind bars who are no danger to society,” said Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Council Services. “Every day they remain locked up is another day they are serving a sentence they were not given–a punishment that forces them to potentially live in close quarters with a deadly, highly contagious virus.”
The state judicial system has mostly shut down in hopes of stemming the spread of COVID-19 among people who would typically be in court. The Supreme Judicial Court ordered immediate closure of courthouses, cancelation of trials, and hearings by videoconference last week.
Over 50 immigrant detainees at Bristol County House of Correction sent a letter last week to Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Public Health, and American Civil Liberties Union airing concerns about crowded conditions and allegedly symptomatic prison guards. The detainees are asking for senior-aged detainees, those who haven’t been charged with aggravated felonies, and others who have not had bond hearings to be released.
A second prison letter said 28 inmates at the Bristol County facility have medical conditions, including leukemia, emphysema, and tuberculosis. The detainees are asking for these individuals, along with detainees without aggravated felonies and those that haven’t had bond hearings, to be released to lower the density of people on the unit.