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Mass. Lawmakers Want The State's Prisons To Move Faster On Pandemic-Related Releases

MCI-Norfolk. (Michael Norton/SHNS)
MCI-Norfolk. (Michael Norton/SHNS)

A Suffolk Superior Court Judge is reviewing an emergency motion to allow the home release of some Massachusetts prisoners due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Based on documents filed in the court case, some state lawmakers are concerned that the Department of Correction has failed to implement a promised program that would allow more prisoners to finish serving their sentences confined at home.

Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts presented the motion to Suffolk Superior Court Judge Robert Ullmann during a hearing on Tuesday. In it, the legal defense group said the department should take steps to reduce the number of people incarcerated in the state because of the spike in coronavirus cases.

"We're in the middle of a major COVID outbreak in the Commonwealth's prisons and there's essentially no effort on the part of the Department of Correction to utilize mechanisms at its disposal to release people," said Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts.

To be eligible for home confinement, a prisoner would have to be within 18 months of the end of their sentence, would have to wear an electronic ankle bracelet and be supervised by the Probation Department.

In court documents, the DOC said there is no statute that requires it to begin a home confinement program. It also said a home confinement program would have little effect, estimating that only a few dozen of the 6,700 prisoners in state custody would be eligible for home confinement release.

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"State law and regulations strictly limit the numbers of inmates who are even eligible for home confinement," read the DOC response to the suit. "Home confinement, as the defendants also stated to the Court, is not intended as an opportunity for inmates to simply be released and go home. Home confinement is, by statute, an element of community work, education, and training programs."

The response was filed by attorneys for DOC Commissioner Carol Mici and Executive Office of Public Safety and Security Secretary Thomas Turco, who are named as defendants.

The DOC response also said home confinement is implemented at the discretion of the DOC Commissioner who "has to balance the safety of the public with the needs of committed and sentenced inmates."

The response indicated that it's not likely that a home confinement program could be implemented before the spring, largely because of the pandemic.

"For a number of reasons, placing inmates in the community at this time is potentially risky," attorneys for the department wrote in their response. "Eligible inmates cannot presently be moved if they are housed in a DOC facility that has recently seen a spike in COVID cases. DOC must also consider the safety of the community and the inmates; if an inmate is working or living outside of a facility, he or she may be exposed — or expose others — to COVID."

That later timeline for implementing a home release program is concerning to state lawmakers including Sen. Becca Rausch and Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, who met with the DOC and state Health and Human Services Secretary Mary Lou Sudders last month. At that meeting, according to the lawmakers, DOC officials indicated that a home confinement program could be implemented in 30-60 days.

"Waiting until April to implement home confinement when the whole point is to avoid inadvertently implementing the death penalty seems to miss the mark," Rausch said. "It is concerning to me that a multi-month delay appears to have been the DOC's decision, especially when those interim months are the ones in which the inmate population is most at risk."

Rausch co-sponsored an amendment to the state budget calling on the DOC to outline its programs to release more prisoners because of the pandemic and outline its reasons for denying releases.

Since late October, COVID-19 cases have been on the rise in state prisons. Department data show that the Massachusetts Correctional Institute in Concord now has more than 172 active cases among prisoners, which is more than a third of its prison population. There are also more than 40 correction officers infected at the facility.

There have been increased cases at the North Central Correctional Institution in Gardner, MCI-Shirley and MCI-Norfolk. A prisoner at Norfolk who tested positive for COVID-19 died Friday. He was the ninth DOC prisoner to die of the infection since the pandemic began.

"It is extremely disappointing that, nine months into a global pandemic, when multitudes of public health agencies have signaled decarceration as one of the most important things we can do to protect public health, the Department of Corrections has chosen to delay the drafting of its home confinement guidelines until spring of 2021," said Sabadosa.

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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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