CONGRESSWOMAN AYANNA Pressley and Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins are urging Gov. Charlie Baker and state correction officials to release inmates at state prisons amid an outbreak of COVID-19 at MCI-Norfolk that has risen to 172 cases over the last two weeks.

Pressley and Rollins say Baker with “the stroke of a pen” could reduce the overall prison population, which would allow the remaining inmates to socially distance and avoid contracting the disease.

“As governor, you hold the necessary clemency and emergency powers to release individuals back to their families and loved ones. The ongoing pandemic has provided sufficient reason to exercise this authority,” the two women said in a letter to Baker.

At a State House press conference, Baker did not reply directly to the letter but lauded the DOC’s efforts to contain the virus during the pandemic. He noted that some prisoners had been released via parole and others to early release. This is when the court rules that some prisoners were eligible for release and required weekly reporting on infection rates and testing at the prison facilities. Most of the people who have been released are detained pre-trial in county corrections, or have parole or probation violations. The releases have not extended to sentenced prisoners.

“When they had an outbreak at Norfolk, they [DOC] moved aggressively to test everyone who is an inmate at the facility and everyone who worked at the facility, and if you weren’t willing to get tested, then you weren’t going to go back to the facility,” said Baker of the latest spike. “They’ve done a good job with this stuff.”

Two men at MCI-Norfolk, a medium security facility, were hospitalized with the virus as of Friday, according to the Department of Correction. Since then, advocates and family members say several other inmates have been taken away in ambulances with respiratory issues.

Rollins and Pressley said that the release of people who are incarcerated does not pose a threat to public safety. They pointed to New Jersey, which recently released more than 2,200 sentenced prisoners and has made plans to release 1,000 more, many of which will go to home confinement.

“Your clemency and emergency authorities empower you to do the same,” they said.

 The Department of Correction began widespread testing at MCI-Norfolk two weeks ago when two inmates there tested positive. Since then, the entire prison, with over 1,200 inmates, has been tested. In addition, staff, per a union agreement, are now required to be tested.

Defense attorney Patty DeJuneas said in an interview that one of the prisoners she works with at MCI-Norfolk was ill with COVID-19 but did not receive a test until his symptoms were almost gone. He was put into a quarantine unit with other men, and his results eventually came back positive. This isn’t the case with everyone, she said.

“The DOC has put people who haven’t yet tested negative in with those who have tested positive — then they find out they’ve tested negative,” said DeJuneas.

Sen. Becca Rausch visited the prison on Tuesday morning, and met with several administrators and health providers there. “I genuinely believe they’re working very hard under the circumstances,” she said. Rausch said she has scheduled an appointment with Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders to urge decarceration.

Senator Becca Rausch visited MCI-Norfolk on Tuesday afternoon and met with medical and corrections officials (Photo by Sarah Betancourt)

At a press conference in front of the State House, Pressley said many inmates are older and have pre-existing health conditions that put them at increased risk.

“My office has heard from whistleblowers, correctional officers, and staff as well as folks behind the wall who have told us that PPE and masks aren’t being worn,” she said. “We have a chance and an opportunity to save lives.”

Rollins said her office has helped gain the release of prisoners who have been convicted and sentenced, but only if they can prove they have an underlying medical condition that makes them susceptible to COVID-19 and a re-entry plan that allows them to return safely to the community. She said her office hasn’t seen a spike in crime as a result of the releases.

We’ve been very deliberate about looking to where they return and keeping the community safe,” she said.

The call for decarceration in Massachusetts is not new, but this is the first time so many cases have been identified at one facility, which also happens to have one of the oldest prison populations in the state. Prisoners Legal Services, which represents a number of inmates at the facility, had previously sought a preliminary injunction seeking the release of prisoners in June, but that injunction was denied.

Following an increase in prison cases and the death of an inmate who had requested home confinement, Prisoners Legal Services filed a motion to require the head of the state’s prison system to implement a home confinement program. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled in June the Department of Correction has the authority to implement such a program but did not require the agency to do so.

Court documents say one of the original plaintiffs, Steven Palladino, died on October 10 from complications related to his medical issues, which included bone marrow cancer, kidney disease, and diabetes.

He requested through attorneys to be placed in home confinement with his family after meeting statutory requirements, and other conditions, like being eligible for parole in less than a year, serving time for a non-violent crime, and being willing to submit to GPS monitoring. His request was denied the day before he died of complications from his preexisting conditions.

The court noted in June in its opinion that the Massachusetts prison system has the highest percentage of elderly prisoners in the country, with half of inmates 60 or older or with underlying medical conditions.

In a response filed on Tuesday, attorneys for the Department of Correction countered that Massachusetts law doesn’t require the establishment of a home confinement program. “The plaintiffs misread and misinterpret the Supreme Judicial Court’s opinion in Foster and on Chief Justice Ralph Gant’s Foster concurrence,” they wrote. As for Palladino, the DOC claims he did not apply for medical parole, which could have gotten him out of confinement.

“Chief Justice Gants did not argue that the Commissioner is required to implement home confinement; he only stated that she has the authority to do so “as part of an inmate’s participation in an education, training, or employment program,”‘ wrote DOC attorney Stephen Dietrick. 

The DOC, he said, already allows inmates who are within 18 months of possible release to go to “prerelease facilities and programming.” The department did not give the number of inmates that have participated in that program during the pandemic.

Visitation is suspended for family and friends at MCI-Norfolk, Concord, and Shirley, where an additional 19 prisoners have tested positive. The DOC has expanded testing at MCI-Framingham, a women’s prison, and several other facilities including Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center and the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital Correctional Unit. A spike of cases at the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center in Plymouth, where 28 of 97 men tested positive during October, caused the facility to temporarily pause admissions.