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Massachusetts law enforcement agencies are taking steps to handle the coronavirus outbreak — particularly in correctional facilities and courthouses where people are not able to isolate and COVID-19 can easily spread.
Advocates are calling on the state to take further action.
The state Department of Correction has temporarily suspended friends and family visits at all 16 state prisons. Attorney visits are still allowed. The DOC says it will evaluate the policy on an ongoing basis to determine when the suspension might be lifted.
"The health of staff, incarcerated individuals, and visitors is of utmost importance," the announcement said.
The DOC said it has no known or suspected cases of COVID-19 and is working with the Department of Public Health to be able to treat any potential outbreak. It is not testing correction officers but is urging them to contact their supervisors if they have been exposed to the virus.
Advocates for those in jails and prisons wrote to Gov. Charlie Baker and DOC officials Friday calling the DOC plan "lacking in details" and inadequate to addressing the coronavirus problem. They say the state should reduce incarceration and outline hygiene and prevention plans, as well as lockdown policies.
"People who are incarcerated are very vulnerable in a public health crisis," Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts, said. "They live in a congregate setting in which they have little or no control over the measures that would protect their health."
Massachusetts jails say they are also suspending or altering public visits, excluding professional visits. The Massachusetts Sheriffs' Association said sheriffs have enhanced screening for incoming inmates and increased cleaning of their facilities.
"As elected officials, the sheriffs have a duty and commitment to protect the inmates who live, staff who work and their constituency from the spread of COVID-19," the sheriffs group wrote in a statement. "The sheriffs are looking at increasing other opportunities for the inmates to communicate with their family, friends and loved ones during this unique and cautious times. "
Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson says he is suspending visitation for two weeks starting Sunday. He says attorneys and clergy will be allowed to visit but will be screened. Volunteers are suspended from entering all Bristol County jails. Hodgson says there is no evidence of infection in his facilities.
Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today issued two orders to deal with the pandemic. It postponed all jury trial empanelments until April 21. This does not affect juries already selected. No new grand juries will be empaneled before April 21.
The second order states that anyone exposed to COVID-19, or has similar symptoms, should not enter a courthouse or state court facility, including probation offices. A statement from the trial court says anyone trying to enter in violation of the order will be denied entry. The order does not say if people will be screened before entering.
"We are taking these measures to balance the need to protect the health of court personnel, those who visit our courthouses and the general public, while attempting to continue court operations to the extent practicable," said a statement from SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants. "This is a rapidly changing situation and we are prepared to take further steps as needed."
Defense attorneys in Massachusetts will begin asking judges to release some clients being held on bail, according to a statement by the Committee for Public Counsel Services.
"This pandemic has changed the circumstances that existed when many of our clients were held," said Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel for CPCS’s public defender division. "We risk spreading the coronavirus within detention centers across the commonwealth every day vulnerable people are unnecessarily held, and that, in itself, is a public safety issue for all of us."
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins announced that her office will be operating with a reduced staff. She has also asked all prosecutors to request a 60-day continuance in cases where the person charged is not in custody. For those in custody, she asked prosecutors to work with defense attorneys to determine if court appearances are necessary. She says additional steps may be taken if warranted, and her office will work to achieve a balance between public health and public safety needs.
"Every individual, business and public agency has a duty to help flatten the curve of this pandemic's growth," Rollins said in a statement. "Criminal justice agencies are no exception."
In an email Friday, the Boston Enforcement Removal Operations office for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sent an email notifying immigration attorneys that in-person check-ins for their clients will be minimized due to the coronavirus pandemic. These are generally appointments scheduled for immigrants living in New England who are working to adjust their legal status and are required to regularly check-in with ICE officials over time.
The email said case officers are working to reschedule appointments over the phone.
This article was originally published on March 13, 2020.
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