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Lawmakers Push DOC To Reduce Prisoners, Increase Testing Amid Pandemic

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)

After coronavirus outbreaks at some Massachusetts prisons, a group of state lawmakers met with correction officials to talk about ways to improve the handling of the pandemic behind bars. The lawmakers say the Department of Correction will expand testing and take steps to release prisoners to home confinement.

The meeting with lawmakers Wednesday involved officials from the DOC, the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

The DOC promised to increase surveillance testing of prisoners, staff and correction officers, according to state Sen. Becca Rausch, who was part of the call-in meeting. Rausch said the department will also provide some free phone calls and emails to prisoners while visitation is restricted because of the outbreaks.

"I was pleased to hear about a number of positive changes that DOC will be implementing," Rausch said. "But my colleagues and I will continue to press DOC for safe decarceration to be implemented."

The DOC said it has provided more than 14,700 coronavirus tests to the prison population, which it said has dropped from close to 7,900 detainees in March to about 6,700. It said it distributed more than 1.8 million pieces of PEE, bottles of hand sanitizer and other materials between March and November.

“The Department of Correction remains committed to the health and safety of those in our care, and we continue to perform a second round of universal COVID-19 testing at all facilities while providing necessary services and meaningful programming for inmates and patients," a department spokesman said in a statement.

The latest testing indicates there are now 33 positive cases at MCI-Norfolk, down from almost 200 earlier this month. There are 81 positive cases at MCI-Concord, which has a population of about 550 men. There are also 24 cases among MCI-Shirley's minimum security population and seven among its medium security population.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who also participated in the meeting, co-sponsored an amendment to the Senate budget that would require the DOC to routinely test prisoners throughout the pandemic and the state attorney general to appoint an ombudsman to ensure the DOC takes action to protect the health and safety of those in custody. The amendment also requires the DOC commissioner to take "all measures possible to release, transition to home confinement or furlough" those who can be safely released.

Advocates have filed an emergency petition asking the courts to force the DOC to release more prisoners on home confinement.

Eight men in DOC custody 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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