OFFICIALS AT THE STATE Department of Correction say they intend to move about 200 minimum security prisoners – some to new facilities and some to home confinement under a plan the agency has been working on for three months.

According to court documents signed by Commissioner Carol Mici, the move toward home confinement, known as the electronic monitoring program, will begin February 7.

Earlier Friday afternoon, officials said the decision to move or transfer about 188 prisoners was triggered by the decision to suspend operations within the next 60 days at under-used housing units holding minimum security and pre-release inmates at MCI-Shirley and South Middlesex Correctional Center. There are no plans to permanently close the facilities, which will reopen after the threat of the pandemic subsides.

An undetermined number of prisoners at the facilities will be moved to homes or secure shelters where they will wear electronic ankle monitors, officials said.

The DOC could not provide further details, but court documents filed Friday afternoon in an ongoing case with Prisoners’ Legal Services revealed more information. The DOC’s Office of Investigative Services will create home plans for approved prisoners and see if any of those involve Section 8 housing or Department of Children and Families involvement.

Training for case officers who will be supervising the monitoring program will begin on January 12.

Updated details about that program can be read here.

MCI-Shirley minimum and South Middlesex Correctional Center were mentioned by the DOC on Friday to be part of the program. It is unknown if other facilities will be added. South Middlesex Correctional Center is a minimum-security/pre-release unit on the DOC’s Framingham campus, and currently holds 26 inmates, just 14 percent of its operational capacity.

The minimum-security housing units of MCI-Shirley currently hold 166 inmates, or 44 percent of its operational capacity. Those in minimum security will be going to other minimum security-level facilities.

As of Friday, 12 prisoners have COVID-19 at South Middlesex, and there are none at MCI-Shirley minimum, although there are two at the medium security part of the facility. The changes at Shirley Minimum and South Middlesex will not affect the availability of quarantine and medical isolation areas, which have been designated at all DOC facilities, or testing of symptomatic individuals for COVID-19.

The shift is expected to allow for continued social distancing and improve cell occupancy rates due to the receiving facilities’ housing layouts and low occupancy rates. Inmates being transferred to another facility will be screened and tested prior to their transfer. The DOC’s announced changes will not impact medium or maximum security prisoners.

That may change. The department and the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security on Friday filed a response in court in an ongoing lawsuit with Prisoners’ Legal Services to release sentenced prisoners, including those at higher security levels, to home confinement. In it, the DOC asked for a month-long extension to respond with its home confinement plan details for medium to maximum security prisoners until Feb 5. citing that its attorney was on vacation.

Advocates say they’re glad that first steps toward depopulation is happening, but say more needs to be done. “It is good that the DOC is planning to finally release some people on home confinement, but it is imperative that they do far more,” said Elizabeth Matos, Executive Director of PLS. “I hope that the presumption is not that such efforts will end the weekly deaths and persistent outbreaks or that it is somehow responsible to just simply wait for the vaccines to take effect, which will be months from now, at best, and there is still much we don’t know.”

The tally of active cases system wide is 320, with 19 prisoners receiving care for COVID-19 complications in area hospitals. NCCI Gardner, a medium and minimum security facility, continues to lead with 165 cases. Two prisoners have died there since December 28.

The number of state prisoners who have died of COVID-19 stands at 16, according to the DOC, with 5 dying in the past week and a half. Two additional prisoners were issued medical parole hours before their deaths, prompting advocates to say they should be counted to make the total 18.