Advocates call on Charlie Baker to release inmates as COVID-19 spreads in jails, prisons

Ninety-eight prisoners have tested positive for the coronavirus, and five have died from complications related to the illness in state prisons and jails.

The Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley.
The Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley. –Elise Amendola / AP, File

Civil rights and public health advocates are urging Gov. Charlie Baker to step up his response to curbing the spread of COVID-19 in state prisons and jails.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Public Health Association wrote to the Swampscott Republican this week, highlighting his “unique position” to alleviate the health issues posed by the global pandemic that are facing the state’s incarcerated population, including by releasing the prisoners at high-risk to the virus.

“The ACLU and public health experts have been sounding the alarm: People incarcerated in prisons, jails, and detention centers are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses,” Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement. “With a growing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts prisons and jails, public officials must act swiftly to prevent more illness and death among people in custody, correctional staff, and the general public. Massachusetts can be a leader in protecting its people, especially its most vulnerable residents, from the worst of COVID-19.”

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The letter is part of the continued push from the ACLU for state officials to address the coronavirus’s growing presence behind bars and contain the spread among a statewide prison population of over 16,000.

The group, along with Fick & Marx LLP, filed a federal class action lawsuit Tuesday calling for the release of elderly, sick, and vulnerable inmates from the Federal Medical Center in Devens.

The ACLU says the lawsuit asks a judge to release those who qualify for compassionate release or home confinement so that the remaining prison population has adequate space to practice social distancing.

The facility is operating “near full capacity,” according to Fick & Marx partner William Fick.

“There is no excuse for failing to immediately release elderly prisoners in their 70s and 80s, those with severe illness or disability, and those who have nearly completed their sentences,” Fick said in a statement. “If the population of this prison doesn’t decrease significantly, people are going to die.”

According to the state Department of Correction, as of Thursday, 98 inmates in Massachusetts state facilities had tested positive for the coronavirus and five had died due to COVID-19 complications.

Forty-two cases have also been reported among DOC staff and 21 cases among vendor staff since the beginning of the health crisis last month, officials said.

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Earlier this month, in response to an emergency petition filed by the ACLU, the Committee for Public Counsel Services, and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers,  the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled that people awaiting trial should be released from jails unless prosecutors can prove they present an “unreasonable” danger to the community or are a flight risk.

Advocates said correctional facilities “can be petri dishes for the rapid spread of infectious disease” due to the lack of vigilant hygiene and because of space constraints that limit social distancing.

“Everyone is worried,” Rebecca Jacobstein, an attorney with CPCS, told Boston.com last month. “There’s not enough soap in some facilities, there’s not enough cleaning supplies in some of these facilities.”

So far, judges have released 47 inmates in Suffolk County, 57 in Worcester County, 54 in Norfolk County, 40 in Essex County, 38 in Plymouth County, and 31 in Bristol County, Boston 25 News reports.

According to the ACLU, the SJC ruling “makes clear that the state’s executive branch has the authority to address the danger facing all those currently serving sentences.”

Baker, speaking on the issue late last month, days before before the SJC issued its ruling, indicated he is opposed to reducing the prison population because of the health crisis.

“This is a very difficult time to be putting people into the community, unless you really believe that’s going to be better for them and better for the community, and I think our view is, we don’t buy as a matter of law, fact, or policy that the argument that’s being made before the court is the correct one,” Baker said.

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In their letter to Baker Tuesday, the ACLU and the MPHA asked Baker to take swift action to lower the number of incarcerated people, such as by ordering the Parole Board to expedite the release of prisoners in cases where the board has already made a decision.

The organizations also asked the governor to consider amending the Executive Clemency Guidelines, issue new commutation and parole decisions for prisoners, and put in place measures to socially distance those behind bars, such as by ending multiple bunking in cells.

“Additional steps must be taken to help protect those who remain within the facilities,” the letter says. “We urge you to appoint a qualified independent public health expert to recommend mitigation efforts, in line with (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and (World Health Organization) guidelines, to best protect the health of corrections staff and individuals who remain incarcerated. This expert should also have the power to inspect facilities to ensure compliance.”

The ACLU and the MPHA also asked Baker to use his emergency and constitutional authority to provide housing in dorms and hotel and motel rooms for released inmates with no where else to go during the pandemic.

“You must do everything in your power to ensure that prison and jail sentences do not become de facto death sentences as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak,” the letter says. “Such an outbreak cannot be contained within the four walls of the institution, which can significantly impact the health of surrounding communities and further strain the capacity of our hospitals. You have an opportunity to mitigate these harms by acting quickly to reduce the number of people incarcerated in Massachusetts during this pandemic.”


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