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Coronavirus Infections Double Among Prisoners At MCI-Shirley

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MCI-Shirley now has the most prisoners testing positive for the coronavirus of any Massachusetts prison.

As of Monday, 106 prisoners tested positive, of 245 prisoners tested at Shirley. On Friday, 47 prisoners had tested positive.

Two of the seven prisoner deaths in Massachusetts are at MCI-Shirley. The other five are at the Massachusetts Treatment Center at Bridgewater.

The state Department of Correction says a big reason behind the jump at Shirley is because mobile testing of prisoners began over the weekend. Prison officials say many of those tested were not showing any symptoms of the disease.

"The Department of Correction continues to take proactive steps including expanded COVID-19 testing at multiple facilities in our ongoing strategic efforts to identify, trace and prevent transmission," a DOC statement said. "The DOC and our contracted medical provider, Wellpath, are focused on reducing, to the greatest degree possible, the impact of the virus on inmates, staff and others within our walls. "

The DOC has locked down state prisons because of the pandemic, giving prisoners about a half hour each day to shower and use the phone. DOC says it has increased cleaning, banned visitors and is screening all staff when they come into correctional facilities.

Prison officials say they plan to expand mobile testing at other state prisons.

Shirley is a medium and minimum security prison that houses about 1,300 men. Among them is Reynaldo Martinez, who has been incarcerated there for two-and-a-half years.

He says although the DOC is now testing more Shirley prisoners, some prisoners are refusing the tests to avoid having further restrictions on their movement in the facility. He says it was only recently that prisoners were given masks, but prison officials aren't providing much information and the men are anxious.

"Constantly there are arguments about how long are we going to stay like this," Martinez said. "We want to be out of our cells. We want to be able to call our families. We want to be able to move around. Because we don't know what's going outside of this unit. No one is telling us a thing."

Although the DOC says it has a plan to isolate those prisoners who test positive, Martinez says it's not clear how long people might be isolated or if there is enough space to do so. He says rumors are rampant about who might be infected and whether they're infecting others.

Further exacerbating tensions, Martinez says, is that some prisoners are not getting mental health treatment during the pandemic because of restrictions on outsiders entering the facility.

"Some of these guys are having anxiety attacks," Martinez said. "All you hear about on the news is death and we don't know what's happening here inside. No one ever talks about the disease and the DOC. We're just in the dark, sitting in our cells and waiting for something to happen."

Gov. Charlie Baker has defended the way the state is handling the pandemic behind bars, saying the DOC is following state and federal health guidelines and adheres to policies that apply to all congregate housing settings in the state.

The state Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that some prisoners might be eligible to seek release because of the pandemic. That won't affect many prisoners at Shirley, as the ruling applies mostly to those who are held awaiting trial and those incarcerated on parole and probation violations.

A lawsuit is seeking to expand the number of those eligible for release, including those who have been sentenced and are near the end of their sentences or eligible for parole.

Behind Shirley, the prison with the second highest number of positive coronavirus cases among prisoners is MCI-Framingham. There, 68 women have tested positive.

Related:

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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