So Far, More Than 300 Prisoners Released Due To COVID-19 Under Mass. High Court's Ruling

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The exterior of the Worcester County jail. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The exterior of the Worcester County jail. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

State prisons and county jails in Massachusetts have released 367 prisoners after this month's state Supreme Judicial Court ruling on reducing incarceration because of the coronavirus.

Of them, 59 left Worcester County facilities, which saw the highest concentration of prisoners released. Those numbers were released Tuesday in a report from the high court. But the report suggested little coronavirus testing is being done of either prisoners or correctional staff.

The report — which is due out weekly — was drawn up by the SJC-appointed "special master," an attorney overseeing the process for releasing prisoners in Department of Correction prisons and county jails overseen by state sheriffs. The report was required as part of the April 3 SJC ruling that said some prisoners could seek release amid the pandemic, such as those held pre-trial and those in custody on technical parole and probation violations.

In aggregate, the report said jails released 296 prisoners in the past week. During that time, county jails — which hold more than 6,700 people — tested 338 prisoners and staff with 116 people testing positive for COVID-19.

Chart via special master's report (SJC)
Chart via special master's report (SJC)

Some jails did little testing in the past week; Bristol and Dukes County, for example, reported zero tests. Essex County, which holds about 1,100 people, administered the most tests: 143 of them. It said there are 45 confirmed positive tests among inmates and staff in Essex County. By contrast, Suffolk County, which holds a similar prisoner count, administered just 17 tests in the past week and has 15 positive results.

The Department of Correction (DOC), which holds about 8,000 people in state prisons, only listed the number of prisoners tested — not staff. The DOC reported 183 tests were given to prisoners in the past week, with 84 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among those incarcerated.

The report also said 13 DOC prisoners have been released since the SJC ruling; 58 people have been paroled; and 23 requests for medical parole were approved.

Four prisoner deaths linked to COVID-19 have been reported in Massachusetts, and all of them involved inmates at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater. It reported the state's first case of a prisoner testing positive with coronavirus on March 21.

Matt Segal, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts — one of several groups that sought SJC intervention — questions the data in the report. He argued that some of the releases reported were done before the SJC ruling.

"The real numbers are those people getting infected, and those are going up and up," Segal said. "So however many releases there have been, it's not enough to stem the spread of this disease in jails and prions."

Segal added the outbreaks inside Massachusetts jails and prisons are ongoing.

"No one can responsibly say they know the extent of the outbreaks because they're not looking," he said.

Lizz Matos, executive director of Boston-based Prisoners' Legal Services, also questioned the release numbers and whether the releases were in response to the SJC ruling or would have happened regardless. She also noted there needs to be more testing done by correctional facilities.

"There are a number of counties reporting zero tests," Matos said. "So we have no idea of knowing who has the disease or who is walking around transmitting the virus to others. We know almost every facility has at least one staff member testing positive, so its hard to imagine that there's not some level of infection going on undetected."

Both Matos and Segal said the special master's report is a tool the SJC will use to determine if it needs to further intervene to help curb the disease in jails and prisons. Judging from Tuesday's report, they both predicted further action from the SJC might be necessary.

This article was originally published on April 14, 2020.

This segment aired on April 15, 2020.


Deborah Becker 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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