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Essex County Brings People Back to Jail Amid COVID-19

Massachusetts is grappling with how to manage people in jails, prisons and courtrooms amid the coronavirus outbreak, with one sheriff pulling men out of a sober home and back to jail.

Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger's office said 30 men who had been in community sober homes are now at the jail's pre-release center. He said that's so the men could be monitored by jail medical staff for any signs of illness, and so treatment could be provided on site.

The sheriff didn't say if any of the men have been tested for coronavirus.

Coppinger's move goes against calls by prisoners rights advocates, who say jails should avoid adding people to the system right now. Corrections officials in other states have taken steps, like mass plea and bond reduction hearings, to reduce the number of those in jails and prisons.

“This is clearly the exact opposite of what should be happening,” said Lizz Matos, executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts, said of Essex County's move. "Such actions raise serious concerns about how evidence based correctional administrators are being about preventing the spread of COVID-19 among incarcerated people.”

So far, no Massachusetts sheriffs or Department of Corrections officials have sought to reduce the prison or jail population. There's been no reports so far of any people in jails or prisons testing positive for coronavirus.

In Hampden County, Sheriff Nick Cocchi says he has a separate unit for those newly entering jail. The jail’s intake unit will monitor people for five days before they can be sent to the general population.

One person was put into preventative medical quarantine but symptoms subsided and the person was determined not to be ill, Cocci said.

Work release and community service programs are also suspended in Hampden Coumty. Like all jails and prisons in the state, Hampden County has restricted family and friends from visiting. Attorneys and clergy will still be allowed, but have to wear masks.

Cocchi says each prisoner will receive two hours of free phone calls each week. The new rules also apply to those involuntarily committed to addiction treatment.

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley has asked the Federal Bureau of Prisons to outline its plans to deal with COVID-19. Pressley says the BOP has not detailed an adequate plan to deal with the disease.

“Given a growing number of incarcerated individuals are over the age of 55 and have chronic illnesses, and for whom an infectious disease can prove most deadly, it is imperative that a contingency plan be in place.” Pressley said in a letter to prison officials.

Massachusetts courts were closed Monday and Tuesday because of the outbreak. Judges held bail hearings by phone. State trial court officials have outlined several steps to reduce the number of people in courthouses, such as postponing non-emergency hearings and not empaneling new juries for criminal and civil trials.

Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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