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New Coronavirus Testing For All State Prisoners And DOC Staff

After recent coronavirus outbreaks at several Massachusetts prisons, universal testing of state prisoners and staff began Saturday.

The Department of Correction says correctional facilities will be in modified operations for two weeks as tests are conducted on prisoners and staff at all 16 state prisons. General visitation will be suspended during that time, but attorney visits and releases from custody will continue as scheduled.

The largest outbreak began at MCI-Norfolk two weeks ago when two men tested positive. There are now 178 detainees that have tested positive, according to the DOC. Some attorneys have filed affidavits questioning how the virus is being handled at Norfolk, saying that men who are quarantined are placed in a dorm setting and return to general population without confirming they no longer carry the virus.

There are outbreaks at other prisons as well. As of Friday evening, according to the DOC, there were 22 men who tested positive at MCI-Shirley Minimum, five men at MCI-Shirley Medium, and three at MCI-Concord. Outbreaks were reported last month at the Essex County Jail and the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center in Plymouth.

Universal testing of prison staff is new and was not required until an agreement was reached this month with the correction officers union to require coronavirus testing of "direct custody staff."

"As part of a concerted effort to protect the health and safety of inmates, patients and staff, the Massachusetts Department of Correction is taking affirmative steps in a continuing effort to reduce the introduction, exposure, and transmission of COVID-19 at its facilities," the DOC said in an emailed statement.

With visits suspended, the DOC says it is expanding access to phone and email communication for prisoners.

Earlier this month, prisoners advocates filed an emergency petition asking the courts to force the state Department of Correction to release more prisoners on home confinement.

Since the start of the pandemic, eight men in prisons and two in jails have died from COVID-19.

Gov. Charlie Baker has defended the way state correction officials are handling the coronavirus pandemic while some state and federal lawmakers publicly urge him to do more to prevent the spread of the virus behind bars.

As WBUR previously reported, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins said they wrote a letter to Baker asking him to reduce the number of people behind bars during the pandemic.

"We've been sounding the alarm on this for months," Pressley said. "COVID-19 does not need to be a death sentence for prisoners and prison staff. As the chief executive of the commonwealth, the governor alone — with a stroke of a pen — has the power to pardon or commute the sentences of thousands medically vulnerable people behind the wall and to reunite them with their families."

Rollins said the governor should follow states like New Jersey, which released thousands of prisoners because of the pandemic.

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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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