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More COVID-19 Cases In Massachusetts Correctional Facilities

MCI-Norfolk is the largest medium security level facility in Massachusetts. Almost 200 coronavirus cases were reported among its population earlier this month. (Michael Norton/SHNS)
MCI-Norfolk is the largest medium security level facility in Massachusetts. Almost 200 coronavirus cases were reported among its population earlier this month. (Michael Norton/SHNS)

Like the rest of Massachusetts, there are increased cases of the coronavirus in state correctional facilities, including 140 prisoners who have now tested positive at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Norfolk.

Widespread testing began at Norfolk last week after two prisoners tested positive. Test results on 300 men there are still pending.

At MCI Shirley's Minimum Security Unit, there are 19 positive cases. There is one positive case at MCI Cedar Junction in Walpole.

The affected prisoners have been moved to a quarantine unit and no one has required hospital care, according to the Massachusetts Department of Correction. Visitation has been suspended at Norfolk and Shirley.

The DOC this week reached an agreement with the correction officers union to test staff who directly work with prisoners. The most recent report from a special master appointed by the state Supreme Judicial Court indicates there are 26 active COVID-19 cases among correction officers.

Staff testing is underway at MCI Norfolk, the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster, MCI Framingham, South Middlesex Correctional Center in Framingham and the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital Correctional Unit. The DOC said staff will be tested at other facilities as well.

The correction officers union has declined to comment on the agreement or say whether the staff testing requirement applies to county jails.

The number of positive cases in county jails does not appear to have spiked as much as in prisons, although many jails are not conducting widespread testing, according to the special master's Report. Seven correction officers in Suffolk County are listed as newly testing positive.

After an outbreak at the Essex County Jail in Middleton last month, jail officials say they now have no active cases.

The special master's report also indicates that the number of people held in county jails has increased, after dropping at the height of the pandemic. In April, there were more than 6,800 people held in county jails, but that dropped to 5,600 people in June. There are now more than 6,400 people incarcerated in county jails.

"The numbers are quite alarming," said Elizabeth Matos, Executive Director of Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts. "To be doing business as usual during a pandemic is not acceptable. It's unconscionable that we are putting more people in jail now than we were at the height of COVID."

The weekly special master's report is required because of a lawsuit that asked the state to reduce the number of people in custody to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Eight men in state prisons and two men 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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