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Mass. Public Defenders Call For More COVID Testing In Correctional Facilities After Recent Outbreaks

Essex County jail in Middleton. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Essex County jail in Middleton. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The state public defender agency is calling for testing every person incarcerated in Massachusetts for the coronavirus.

The Committee for Public Counsel Service points to recent outbreaks of the virus at two correctional facilities, a jail in Middleton and a facility for men civilly committed for addiction treatment in Plymouth.

"The pandemic is not over, and it is irresponsible and unconstitutional to take a business-as-usual approach to incarceration," said CPCS Chief Counsel Anthony Benedetti in a statement. "Continuing on this course will put prisoners, staff, their families and the community at risk."

The Essex County Sheriff said Wednesday that it had completed testing of all of those in its custody, as well as its employees. Of the 1,007 prisoners tested, 139 were positive at the Middleton Jail and House of Correction. Of the 685 workers tested, 33 were positive. The sheriff said all cases were mild and no one required hospitalization.

The testing was prompted after an outbreak was detected last week. The sheriff said no positive cases were found in other Essex County correctional facilities.

On Friday, the state Department of Correction said it was no longer accepting men involuntarily committed at the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center (MASAC) in Plymouth. Twenty-eight men committed to the facility — as well as 11 employees of the facility's medical provider, Wellpath — tested positive. (Wellpath has taken over operations of MASAC, but it is overseen by the DOC.)

In a statement, the DOC said strategic testing is being done and there have been only five new cases in state prisons since July.

“The Department of Correction’s focus remains on the health and safety of those entrusted to our care at all 16 of our facilities," the department said in the statement. "DOC continues strategic testing department-wide, consistent with [Department of Public Health] guidance to ensure that any new cases are identified rapidly and transmission is minimized to the greatest extent possible."

A spokesperson for the county sheriffs did not respond to requests for comment.

The state public defenders say stronger action is needed as COVID-19 case numbers creep up in some areas and with a recent increase in the number of people incarcerated in Massachusetts, particularly those held pre-trial. Currently, there are almost 7,000 people in DOC custody, and more than 6,000 people incarcerated in county jails.

"Statewide, we are seeing an increase in the prison population. More people are being locked up in facilities where adequate testing is not being done," CPCS attorney Benedetti said. "This combination of failures can and will lead to more infections, more outbreaks and could potentially lead to the unnecessary loss of life."

In April, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled that some detainees could seek release because of the pandemic. The high court also ordered all correctional facilities to release weekly reports about their rates of infection.

Those reports indicate that more than 400 prisoners in DOC custody and more than 300 of those held in county jails have tested positive. More than 400 workers in both jails and prisons were also positive. Eight state prisoners and two men held in county jails have died from COVID-19.

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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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