UNDER PRESSURE to release prisoners to home confinement during the coronavirus pandemic, the Massachusetts Department of Correction is downplaying the program’s impact, saying only about 20 to 25 of the state’s 6,700 inmates could be released at a time.

The agency, responding to questions as part of a lawsuit brought by Prisoners’ Legal Services in Suffolk Superior Court, said it will implement a home confinement program over the next 60 days but warned that, with current restrictions, it would have little impact on the size of the prison population.

“The requirements of state law and regulations do not allow for mass releases,” said DOC Commissioner Carol Mici and Public Safety Tom Turco in documents filed with the court.

“We are disappointed that the DOC and administration are not being far more proactive about instituting and utilizing home confinement among other release mechanisms to safely reduce the prison population, especially given how extensive the outbreaks are right now in our prisons and that multiple people have died in the last two weeks,” said Lizz Matos, who heads Prisoners Legal Services, after reviewing the DOC’s response.

The Department of Correction recently released two prisoners on medical parole just hours before their deaths from COVID-19, according to documents.

Matos said reducing the numbers of people in prisons is a “sound, evidence-based public health response” to the ongoing crisis that experts have been calling for since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

Prisoners’ Legal Services has been battling in the courts for release of inmates during the coronavirus pandemic. A preliminary injunction seeking the release of prisoners was denied in June and an emergency motion was filed in November claiming that the Department of Correction had failed to comply with a statutory obligation to create a review process at each correctional facility to “evaluate the behavior and conduct of inmates within the prison and recommend whether an inmate shall be permitted to participate in any program outside a correctional facility, exclusive of parole.”

Home confinement is one such program, but the Department of Correction has been slow to embrace it. Home confinement is required by state statute, but the agency has largely ignored the law. Agency officials told legislators in November that they would implement the program in 60 days or less, but that timeframe has been reset to 60 days from Tuesday.

The agency said in the court documents that the “COVID-19 pandemic, and especially the recent spike in Massachusetts cases, has made implementation of a home confinement program much more difficult.” Agency officials attributed much of the delay to court proceedings that have been put off or switched to virtual, but court proceedings are not required for home confinement decisions. The court documents also suggest home confinement programs are not statutorily required, noting implementation of such programs is at the “discretion of the Commissioner.”

One of the original plaintiffs in the case, Steven Palladino, died on October 10 from complications related to his medical issues, which included bone marrow cancer, kidney disease, and diabetes. The DOC declined his application for home confinement the day before his death.

To be eligible for home confinement and other pre-release, parole, and work programs, prisoners must be within 18 months of release or parole eligibility and assigned to a pre-release or minimum-security facility. They also can’t be incarcerated for violent or sexual offenses or serving a mandatory sentence.

Any prisoner released to home confinement would be required to wear an electronic ankle bracelet. The bracelet would be monitored by the Probation Department, while DOC staff would supervise inmates approved for home confinement, according to the court documents.

Recent outbreaks of COVID-19 at MCI-Norfolk, Shirley, and other facilities have been cited by Prisoners’ Legal Services to bolster its argument that inmates should be released, but the Department of Correction is saying it wants to hold off on releasing prisoners because of community public health concerns.

In its filing with the court, the Department of Correction outlined why it felt only 20 to 25 inmates would qualify for home confinement. The DOC has a breakdown of how many prisoners at medium security facilities (MCI-Concord, MCI-Framingham, MCI-Norfolk, MCI-Shirley, NCCI-Gardner and Old Colony Correctional Center) might be eligible for home confinement if they were shifted to minimum security or pre-release facilities. The number totaled 54, including 10 inmates at MCI-Concord and five at the women’s prison in Framingham. Norfolk saw the most with 15 prisoners.

The agency noted any inmate who qualifies for home confinement would have to win approval from a three-member committee made up of DOC staff and also demonstrate that they have a home they could go to. The department also appeared to add an additional barrier to granting home confinement, saying that, even if an inmate is eligible for release, “he/she must be deemed suitable for placement outside of a correctional facility.”