THE BAKER ADMINISTRATION’S top prison official told a state judge on Wednesday that she is satisfied with the way the system is responding to COVID-19 cases and sees no need to release inmates convicted of serious crimes to house arrest.
Carol Mici, the commissioner of the Department of Correction, appeared virtually before Superior Court Judge Robert Ullmann, who is gathering information for the Supreme Judicial Court in a case where inmates are seeking their release to house arrest to reduce their exposure to COVID-19. The SJC previously authorized the release of 800 prisoners awaiting trial, but this proceeding is dealing with inmates actually convicted of crimes.
Mici said the state’s 16 correctional facilities are regularly cleaned and that staff and medical vendors are all required to wear masks. Asked about reports of DOC staff not wearing masks, she said one correctional officer was penalized “with a five-day suspension for not wearing a mask on his unit.”
The commissioner said masks are also being distributed to some inmates now.
Social distancing is difficult inside prison facilities but Mici said a number of policies have been implemented to reduce personal interactions. She said no visitors are allowed inside the prison and food is being delivered to inmates in their cells.
Forty-two percent of prisoners are housed in single cells, and the rest have either roommates or are in dormitories. With bunks in some cases three feet apart, it’s difficult for inmates to remain six feet from each other. Mici said inmates can sleep head to toe, but that would be difficult in some situations. She put responsibility on prisoners to social distance.
“They need to do their part,” she said. “They’re grown competent adults.”
Mici oversees 7,500 inmates at 16 facilities. According to the Department of Correction, COVID-19 infections have been reported at only five facilities. Overall, 735 inmates have been tested for COVID-19 and 257 had tested positive as of Wednesday morning, up from 239 the day before. There have been seven COVID-19 deaths at two prisons.
The state has stepped up testing at three facilities in Shirley, Bridgewater, and Framingham where COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred. If an inmate tests positive, Mici said, the person goes into medical isolation. At the Framingham facility, where female prisoners are held, Mici said individual inmates are housed in former solitary confinement units that were shut down after legislation passed putting limitations on their use. Mici said the sick prisoners are not held under the former rules for restrictive housing and are kept in the cells only to isolate them.
Mici said a prisoner who is seriously ill could end up in the health services unit or at a field hospital set up in the DCU Center in Worcester or at a hospital.
Under questioning from Jim Pingeon, an attorney from Prisoners’ Legal Services, which brought the case, Mici said some inmates who test positive are sent to single cells in the same unit as prisoners without the disease. She said the infected inmates would share showers and bathrooms with non-infected inmates, but those facilities are cleaned regularly.
The SJC in a separate case has urged the Baker administration to consider commuting sentences, issuing furloughs, and allowing early parole to reduce crowding in the prisons. The court said only the Baker administration has the authority to order a broader release of prisoners, and urged it.
Records indicate only 24 medical parole requests have been approved so far. There are also about 300 pending parole requests. Mici said that she has been taking the parole applications “under consideration and has expedited them.”
Two inmates, including one bound to a wheelchair with a heart condition, testified earlier this week that they had requested medical paroles and heard nothing back. Mici said she was “not aware” of those applications, but noted that about 50 to 60 medical parole requests are pending.
In an interview after the hearing, Pingeon, the Prisoners’ Legal Services attorney, said he was “a little surprised to learn that people who tested positive for COVID are housed in the same unit as people who tested negative,” particularly at MCI-Shirley where cases spiked over the weekend with widespread testing.
The Department of Correction has declined to comment on the case, as it is ongoing.