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More Than 150 Positive COVID-19 Cases Reported Among Prisoners, Staff Inside Mass. Jails And Prisons

The Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater (Google screenshot)
The Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater (Google screenshot)

The coronavirus appears to be spreading quickly in Massachusetts jails and prisons, with more than 150 positive cases reported among prisoners and staff.

The hardest hit facility has been the Massachusetts Treatment Center (MTC) in Bridgewater, where four prisoners have died from COVID-19. They're the only prisoner deaths reported in the state.

Among the 37 prisoners infected at the Massachusetts Treatment Center is 48-year-old Moonie Moses, according to his attorney, Michael Nam-Krane. He said Moses told him he tested positive for the virus and had several symptoms of COVID-19.

"He was suffering," Nam-Krane said. "He was basically at a point where he had a hard time breathing, his muscles ached, and he couldn't move. He tells me his fever spiked to about 103-104 degrees."

Nam-Krane said the prison's medical staff regularly saw Moses, and he was isolated and moved to a single cell. But he said the treatment consisted of Tylenol and an inhaler.

"He was basically left in his cell and given what you would give a child for the flu, not an adult with the coronavirus," Nam-Krane said. He added that Moses appears to be recovering.

Moses is among the more than 560 men in custody at MTC Bridgewater, which holds men deemed sexually dangerous. About half of the men are civilly committed there for treatment. Moses was convicted of rape and is serving a life sentence.

The first positive coronavirus test was reported at the facility on March 21, and the rate of infection keeps rising there and at other correctional facilities. At MCI-Framingham, the state prison for women, there are 26 positive cases among prisoners and seven staff members. That's the second-highest number in state prisons.

Thomasina Baker's daughter, Kimya Foust, has been incarcerated at MCI-Framingham for 13 years. She said her daughter told her prisoners are anxious and suspicious because there is no communication about the virus. During a recent call with Baker, her daughter said she was watching as a prisoner was removed from her cell.

"I was on the phone with her, and she was like, 'Mom, I'm seriously afraid because they just came in and took her, and no one knows where she went or if she has the disease,' " Baker said. "A week ago the same thing: three people came in hazmat suits and took one of the prisoners out, and they haven't seen her since."

Several people with incarcerated loved ones said it's impossible for people in custody to stay 6 feet away from each other as social distancing guidelines recommend. And like on the outside, they said there is little testing. A report from the state Supreme Judicial court backs that up. The report said jails and prisons administered about 500 tests of prisoners and staff in the past week.

Lizz Matos, executive director of Boston-based Prisoners' Legal Services, said that's not enough. She pointed out there are almost 15,000 people incarcerated and thousands of correctional employees, and the SJC report showed that in some county jails there has been no testing.

"You have a number of counties reporting zero tests, so we have no way of knowing who is walking around COVID positive and possibly transmitting the virus to others," Matos said.

The counties that reported no prisoner testing last week were Barnstable, Dukes, Franklin and Bristol. Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said although little testing is reported for his jail in the SJC report, about a half dozen tests have been done there. He said no prisoners have tested positive, and he attributed that to several things, such as increased cleaning, a ban on visitors and masks provided to prisoners and staff. Sheriff Hodgson said there is no need for more testing.

"You don't test people in the grocery store," Hodgson said. "You don't test people who aren't showing symptoms."

Hodgson believes the SJC should not be getting involved because he said sheriffs have pandemic plans and releasing people is not the right response.

"The sheriffs have got this," Hodgson said. "Taking people out of a place that's got control and support — and by-and-large most of them don't have good self-discipline — and having them go out into the community and then thinking they're just going to be fine is really short-sighted."

The SJC report released by a so-called "special master" appointed by the court said 367 prisoners have been released in the past 10 days under the high court's recent ruling that some prisoners can request hearings for release due to the threat of COVID-19. Eligible prisoners are those being held pre-trial on nonviolent offenses and those incarcerated for some probation and parole violations. However, some criminal justice reform advocates said many of those releases may have happened regardless of the pandemic.

In Suffolk County, Sheriff Steven Tompkins said 31 prisoners have been released because of the crisis. Tompkins said in Suffolk County six prisoners and eight staff have tested positive. One of the prisoners was briefly hospitalized at Boston Medical Center. He said all prisoners with confirmed and suspected cases of COVID-19 are quarantined in special units at the jail. The report said the jail administered 17 tests to prisoners last week.

"As many of the health organizations and infectious disease experts have stated, the introduction of the COVID-19 virus in prison settings is inevitable," Tompkins said in an emailed statement, "and we are all a microcosm of what is happening on our streets and in our communities."

As for The Department of Correction, its steps to address the pandemic in prisons include following state and federal health guidelines, banning visits and increasing cleaning. All DOC prisons are now in lockdown. The SJC report said the DOC released 13 prisoners and tested 183 people last week. Gov. Charlie Baker has maintained there is enough testing in prisons.

"We follow DPH protocols on this stuff, and we do a great deal of testing," Baker said. "Many of the same decisions we made with respect to the way we thought about other 24-7 institutions, whether on the mental health side or the public health side, we implemented exactly the same policies in the prisons."

Some groups have called on the governor to do more. The ACLU and a group of state public health officials wrote the governor earlier this week asking him to consider using his clemency powers to release more people from custody.

The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization sent a letter signed by more than 70 clergy members calling for the release of those held on nonviolent offenses or those who would be vulnerable to the disease.

Weekly SJC reports are expected under the court's prisoner release ruling, which leaves open the possibility that the high court may have to intervene again if the virus doesn't subside.

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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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