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As Pandemic Worsens, Mass. High Court Hearing Could Spur Correctional Facilities To Release More Prisoners

Some Massachusetts sheriffs say they are already considering whether some prisoners can be released to stem the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities, ahead of a hearing next week asking the state to quickly start reducing incarceration.

A spokesman for Barnstable County Sheriff James Cummings says 100 fewer men are incarcerated there now compared to a year ago. There are two housing units in the jail dedicated to COVID-19. As of Friday there were no reports of positive coronavirus tests in Barnstable.

Each prisoner's case needs to carefully considered before release, and there should not be a large-scale release, Cummings said.

"Such a decision, as proposed by groups who represent inmates, would be a danger to the community and setting the inmates up for failure," said a statement from Cummings' office.

The Massachusetts Sheriffs' Association said sheriffs are working to safely manage their facilities. The association said several steps are being taken in state correctional facilities, like suspending visitation, and improved hygiene and screening for those who enter correctional facilities.

Next week the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will hear an emergency petition asking the state to act quickly to reduce incarceration and start releasing some of those being held pre-trial, or on nonviolent offenses or those who are elderly and in bad health. The court has asked all sheriffs, district attorneys, the Department of Correction, the parole board and the state attorney general to respond before Tuesday's hearing.

In Massachusetts, state health officials say the risk of opioid-related death after release from incarceration is more than 50 times greater than for the general public.

In response to the releases, some public health and law enforcement officials are taking steps to prevent overdoses among those recently released. They've assembled 200 kits containing the overdose reversal drug naloxone to distribute to those being released from some Massachusetts jails because of overlapping health concerns of overdose and COVID-19.

The Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI) said it's working with some Boston health officials to distribute "survival kits" containing naloxone and information about treatment and addiction support services.

"In the midst of this coronavirus crisis, people with substance use disorders will face even greater barriers to care and the risk of overdose will rise," said PAARI Executive Director Allie Hunter. "Those released from incarceration will be at an increased risk for fatal overdose, at a time when area hospitals and medical care centers are being burdened significantly as they work to treat COVID-19 patients."

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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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