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Sheriff: Coronavirus Should Not Mean Release Of People In Jail For Addiction Treatment

The grounds of the Hampden County Jail in Ludlow. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The grounds of the Hampden County Jail in Ludlow. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi says the men held at his jail for addiction treatment should stay there, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Cocchi is pushing back against a class action lawsuit seeking to reduce the number of people in correctional facilities because of COVID-19. That includes those civilly committed by a judge to addiction treatment, but who haven't committed any crimes.

"To just send someone struggling with substance use disorder away from treatment, before they are ready and without the lifelines and tools to be successful, is immoral, negligent and dramatically increases the chances they will relapse and potentially suffer an otherwise avoidable death," Cocchi said.

The lawsuit, filed by Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts, argues that it is impossible to adhere to social distancing measures in correctional settings. It also says that because outside visitors are restricted during the pandemic, no addiction treatment is being provided to those civilly committed under the state law known as Section 35.

The law allows courts to involuntarily commit someone to addiction treatment if they are deemed a danger to themselves or others. Two correctional facilities hold men civilly committed to addiction treatment. There are also facilities run by the Department of Public Health. Women are not sent to jails and prisons for treatment, a change made in 2016.

"Confining Section 35 patients in an unsafe correctional institution that does not offer treatment for alcohol or substance use disorders is not reasonably related to the treatment and protective purposes of Section 35," the lawsuit says.

Those civilly committed to treatment are especially at risk, the lawsuit argues.

"Concerns about the safety of Section 35 patients are heightened because the
average stay is only 30 to 40 days, and the rapid turnover of the population makes it impossible to adequately screen newly admitted residents," the lawsuit says.

Cocchi says treatment is still being provided to the 44 men held under Section 35 at his jail, using qualified staff to provide therapies and recovery help. Cocchi maintains many of the men are safer in his facility than they would be outside because everyone is medically screened.

"They're not just locked up in a room here, told to go cold turkey, " Cocchi said. "We're maintaining operations here and we're on top of it."

Some of the other steps Cocchi says are being taken to deal with the pandemic in his jail include giving masks to staff and prisoners, making available unlimited hygiene products and providing medical and behavioral health care to those held under Section 35.

Cocchi says no one incarcerated at his jail has tested positive for coronavirus. Eleven workers at the Hampden County jail have tested positive, and six have returned to work.

Across the state, at least 48 people in jails have tested positive for the coronavirus, most at the Essex County jail.

This article was originally published on April 23, 2020.

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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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