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DOC Tightens Visitor Policy To Stop Spread Of Coronavirus In Prisons

With coronavirus outbreaks spiking at Massachusetts correctional facilities over the past two months, officials are taking a further step to try to stop the spread of the virus behind bars.

Beginning last week, the Department of Correction now requires anyone visiting a state prison to have had a negative coronavirus test within the previous three days. General visitation to state prisons was suspended in November, so the new rule applies to those authorized to visit such as contractors and attorneys. The DOC says remote meeting arrangements will be made for attorneys who are not able to provide a recent negative test result. The department says it is modifying visitation policies "to further protect inmates from the introduction of COVID-19 into DOC facilities."

Last month, the DOC reached an agreement with the correction officers' union to require tests of direct custody staff. The department says correction officers and medical vendor staff are regularly tested and those who test positive are not allowed to return to work until they're medically cleared.

The latest numbers show that more than 150 DOC prisoners are currently infected with the virus, about two thirds are at MCI-Norfolk which had a spike in positive cases more than month ago. There are about two dozen new cases at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, where five prisoners have died from COVID-19.

As of Friday, 11 prisoners in the state were hospitalized. More than 200 DOC correction officers are listed as positive, with the most cases reported at MCI-Shirley, MCI-Norfolk and the Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater. The Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union declined to comment.

County jails are also seeing an increasing number of cases, with the biggest clusters reported at the Essex County Jail in Middleton and the Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow. The most recent Special Master report to the state Supreme Judicial Court says there were 172 active cases among those held in jails as of last week. Essex County had the highest number, with 70 cases reported among detainees. A spokesperson for the Essex County Sheriff says most of those who tested positive are asymptomatic and there are no hospitalizations. At the Hampden County Correctional Center, there were 62 active cases among prisoners.

Massachusetts prisoners and correctional staff are among those scheduled to be vaccinated in the first phase of the state's COVID vaccine plan. It's not yet clear when vaccines might be given in jails and prisons.

Eleven DOC prisoners and two men held at county jails have died of 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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