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New Legal Action To Free Massachusetts Prisoners Due To COVID-19

Massachusetts Prisoners rights advocates are pursuing two new legal avenues to reduce the number of people incarcerated in Massachusetts during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Advocates say the state is not responding to the pandemic quickly enough and is endangering the health of those in custody.

Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts has filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of 11 prisoners and "all others similarly situated." It asks that the state take steps to get people out of correctional settings, such as releasing those who have almost completed their sentences, those approved for parole, those with health issues and those civilly committed for addiction treatment.

The suit says because prisoners live in close quarters and many are older or have health conditions, more people should be released to mitigate the spread of the virus. While the Supreme Judicial Court this month ruled that some prisoners are eligible to seek release, the suit says more needs to be done.

"While a step in the right direction, that decision doesn't provide enough relief to stop the virus from continuing to spread, particularly in the crowded prison system," said Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners Legal Services "We undoubtedly need broader relief to meaningfully reduce the risk of COVID-19 for both incarcerated people and correctional staff."

The defendants named in the suit are Massachusetts Department of Correction Commissioner Carol Mici, Massachusetts Parole Board Chair Gloriann Moroney, Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security Secretary Thomas Turco and Gov. Charlie Baker.

"Unlike other states, Massachusetts officials have failed to take action to effectuate the release of prisoners despite their clear authority to do so," the lawsuit reads. "The Governor has refused to act on his near plenary emergency powers when it comes to the health and safety of prisoners, publicly confirming his intention to stick with a failing status quo. There have been no commutations, no furloughs, no increase in earned good times, no releases by DOC to home confinement, little if any increase in the use of medical parole, and no effort by the parole board to streamline the parole process or modify the criteria for release in light of COVID-19."

The suit cites the rise in the number of infections and deaths in state jails and prisons since the first COVID-19 case was reported in a Massachusetts prison on March 21. There are now more than 170 positive corona virus tests among prisoners and staff at jails and prisons. Five prisoners have died from the disease.

It is the first legal action to name those civilly committed to addiction treatment. More than 100 men are civilly committed to treatment at the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center at MCI Plymouth and at the Hampden County jail. Men are sent to those facilities if there are no beds in Department of Public Health-run facilities. The suit says, because of the pandemic, much of the addiction programming has paused and the men are being put at risk by living in correctional settings, although they haven't committed any crimes.

The suit also cites the parole board, alleging that although more than 300 prisoners requests for parole have been approved, the Massachusetts parole board has not yet acted on them.

A second legal action filed today asks the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to reconsider or modify its ruling about releasing prisoners. The motion, filed by the state public defender agency and others, says the state has not moved quickly to release prisoners since the April 3 SJC ruling that some of those incarcerated are eligible to seek release because of the pandemic.

The motion says while some 400 people have been released from jails and prisons, many more should be eligible, including those whose parole requests have been approved, those who are ill and those who are nearing the end of their sentences.

"These releases should be applauded," the motion reads. "But because they coincide with a dramatic increase in infections, there can be no credible claim that the current pace of releases will suffice to curb the spread of COVID-19, and with it the risk of more illness and death, in the Commonwealth's carceral settings."

The plaintiffs say they expect the SJC will issue a response to the motion soon.

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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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