The Massachusetts Department of Correction will suspend operations at two prisons, saying the decision was driven by low prisoner population. The department said it will also begin releasing more prisoners to home confinement in February.
The moves come as lawmakers approved an amendment requiring the department to regularly report on its efforts to release prisoners during the coronavirus pandemic.
The DOC said the state's prison population is at its lowest level in almost 35 years, so it will temporarily suspend operations at housing units that hold minimum-security and pre-release prisoners at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute in Shirley and South Middlesex Correctional Center.
South Middlesex is a minimum-security, pre-release unit on the DOC’s Framingham campus, and currently holds 26 people, which the DOC says is 14% of its operational capacity. The minimum-security housing units at MCI-Shirley hold 166 prisoners, or 44% of its operational capacity.
Some of the 192 people held at those facilities will be released on home confinement plans and others will be transferred to other minimum security prisons. The department said the move will help reduce incarceration and prevent the spread of the virus behind bars.
"In addition to allowing continued social distancing, the shift is expected to maintain or improve cell occupancy rates due to the receiving facilities’ housing layouts and low occupancy rates," the DOC said in an emailed statement.
The DOC has said in previous court filings that it will start identifying prisoners eligible for home confinement this month and, if approved, could begin an electronic monitoring program on Feb. 7.
Advocates applauded the move, but say even more should be done as prisoners wait for the COVID-19 vaccine. As of Friday, more than 260 doses of the vaccine were administered in correctional facilities. Those were given to medical staff and correction officers, not to prisoners.
"It is good that the DOC is planning to finally release some people on home confinement, but it is imperative that they do far more," said Elizabeth Matos, Executive Director of Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts. "I hope that the presumption is not that such efforts will end the weekly deaths and persistent outbreaks or that it is somehow responsible to just simply wait for the vaccines to take effect, which will be months from now, at best, and there is still much we don't know."
The changes come as a new requirement goes into effect mandating that Massachusetts jails and prisons report more information to state lawmakers about how the DOC has handled the coronavirus behind bars.
Lawmakers recently approved an amendment requiring the department report on what steps it's taking to release prisoners - especially those most vulnerable to covid. It requires the DOC to consider releasing those who can be safely let out through programs such as home confinement, medical parole and furloughs.
The amendment also requires that the state's attorney general appoint an ombudsman to help monitor compliance.
The DOC said it has conducted more than 23,600 tests since the pandemic began and has distributed more than 2.1 million masks, gloves, bottles of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and other articles of personal protective equipment since March. Currently, there are more than 300 prisoners who are considered to be active cases of COVID-19, and 16 DOC prisoners have died from the disease. Two men in county jails have also died.