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Pressley Urges State To Release More Prisoners After COVID Outbreak at MCI-Norfolk

Ayanna Pressley speaks in Boston on June 2, 2020. (John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Ayanna Pressley speaks in Boston on June 2, 2020. (John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

As coronavirus cases continue to spike at Massachusetts prisons and jails, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley is publicly urging the state to release more incarcerated people in an effort to combat the spread behind bars.

At MCI-Norfolk, a medium security state prison that holds about 1,200 men, more than 150 prisoners are positive, according to attorneys involved in a Department of Corrections court case heard Monday. Two men who were being held there have been hospitalized with the virus, according to the DOC. The department said Tuesday that it did not have updated testing numbers since Friday, when it said that 140 men had tested positive for the virus.

"Public health experts have been demanding the release of prisoners, who cannot socially distance or otherwise protect themselves, since the onset of the pandemic in March," a statement from Pressley's office says.

Widespread testing began at MCI-Norfolk two weeks ago, when two men tested positive. The facility holds some of the state's oldest and most medically vulnerable prisoners.

Prisoners, advocates and attorneys for those incarcerated at MCI-Norfolk question how the DOC is handling the virus. In emails, some men held at Norfolk say that prisoners have been taken by ambulance from the prison and new units have been opened to quarantine those who test positive.

Some advocates and attorneys say men who test positive are housed in a quarantine unit for 10 to 14 days and then put back into the general population, without first testing negative. They also say that although the state reached agreement to test some DOC correction officers who are in direct contact with prisoners, the officers are transporting positive prisoners to quarantine units and then returning to work in the general population — putting more people at risk.

"MCI-Norfolk is bad, but it's not different anywhere else," says attorney Ruth Greenberg, who represents four men at MCI-Norfolk who are seeking medical parole because of health issues. "The fact that this happened at Norfolk — it's going to happen again. There is nothing the department is doing to prevent it."

The DOC says it is taking steps to control the pandemic behind bars, including testing prisoners and some staff, and rigorously cleaning facilities. The department has suspended visitation at Norfolk and MCI-Shirley, where 19 prisoners recently tested positive. The DOC also says there is one positive case reported at MCI-Cedar Junction.

The department says it is also conducting widespread testing at MCI-Framingham and South Middlesex Correctional Center in Framingham, Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster and the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital Correctional Unit in Boston.

Pressley will hold a press conference at the State House at 2 p.m. on Tuesday to urge state lawmakers to reduce the number of people incarcerated to help mitigate the virus, joined by public health experts, advocates and family members of people being held at MCI-Norfolk.

The state Supreme Judicial Court ruled in April that some prisoners are eligible to seek release and required weekly reporting on infection rates from jails and prisons.

MCI-Norfolk has the largest, most recent COVID outbreak at a state correctional facility. There have also been recent spikes at the Essex County Jail in Middleton and the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center (MASAC) in Plymouth, which houses men civilly committed to addiction treatment. The Essex County Sheriff says there are currently no active COVID cases among prisoners there. MASAC has temporarily stopped admitting men for treatment.

This article was originally published on November 10, 2020.

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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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