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Families Of Prisoners Hospitalized With COVID Often Cannot Get Critical Details04:21
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MCI-Norfolk. (Michael Norton/SHNS)
MCI-Norfolk. (Michael Norton/SHNS)

Last month, Carmen Berry heard her 57-year-old son, Nelson Rodriquez, was taken from MCI-Norfolk, where he's been incarcerated, and hospitalized with COVID-19. Another prisoner called to tell the family.

"He has health issues, so we were really worried," Berry explains. "My heart fell to my stomach."

When she called the Massachusetts Department of Correction to find out more, Berry says she was told the DOC could not provide protected health information about a prisoner.

"I wasn't asking for a diagnosis or a prognosis, I just wanted to know where he was," Berry says.

Berry says DOC staff told her that for security reasons they couldn't reveal to her, or her son's health care proxy, where her son was. She says she was also told that no one really knew.

"I said, 'If you are the superintendent, or you're the DOC, and you don't know where he is, we're in trouble,' " Berry recalls. "I just felt so powerless."

At the time, there was a large COVID outbreak at Norfolk, and prisoners had died. Rodriquez has spent more than 20 years incarcerated, most of them at Norfolk on a second-degree murder conviction.

Why Families Struggle To Get Health Information

Several Massachusetts correctional facilities are currently grappling with outbreaks of the virus. In this second surge, there have been hundreds of new infections in jails and prisons, and the number of prisoners who have died from COVID-19 has nearly doubled in the past six weeks.

Rodriquez is among at least 18 Massachusetts prisoners currently hospitalized with COVID-19. DOC policies allow for health information to be provided to a prisoner's emergency contact, as long as the prisoner has signed the proper release form. Information can also be provided to a health care proxy or attorney, and there is a chain of command to be followed when health information is released.

But Rodriquez's attorney, Rebecca Rose, says she could not get information about her client, except that he was seriously ill and hospitalized.

"That's all we knew for three weeks, that he was on critical condition and on a ventilator," Rose said.

"That's all we knew for three weeks, that he was on critical condition and on a ventilator."

Attorney Rebecca Rose

Rose is experiencing a similar situation with another client, Edgar Bowser. He has been held for more than a decade at Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater, another state prison with a recent large outbreak. Rose and Bowser's family heard from other prisoners that Bowser was hospitalized with COVID-19 earlier this month.

While attorney phone calls are allowed, Rose says she was told she would not be able to speak with Bowser. She believes this means he has been intubated. Rose says she has tried to get information from the hospital, but the DOC will not allow medical personnel to talk to her.

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"In this pandemic, these men are on ventilators. They're in critical condition, and we know they can't make their own decisions," Rose said. "I think it's just cruel and inhumane not to let the families talk to the doctors."

Starting Monday, the state will begin administering coronavirus vaccines to more than 13,000 incarcerated people, a process that's expected to take about three weeks. Gov. Charlie Baker included prisoners in the first phase of the vaccine rollout, along with other congregate care settings such as homeless shelters and group homes. Advocates and families of prisoners say they're relieved, but some are still having difficulty getting information about those who have already fallen ill.

In an emailed statement, the DOC says when a prisoner's condition is critical, staff notifies the designated emergency contact. But the department says privacy laws prevent DOC from discussing a person's incarcerated status or revealing protected heath information.

Prisoners' advocates say the policies are not always followed, and many families struggle to find out about the health of an incarcerated loved one, often relying on information from other prisoners. They say the problem has worsened during the pandemic, with visitation banned and so many people sickened by the virus.

Liz Matos, executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts, says this problem existed pre-pandemic. She often hears from families scrambling to get information.

"A lot of times families find out when death is imminent, and they haven't really been involved in any communication process before that," Matos said. "There's not a lot the DOC can do, really."

COVID Medical Parole Cases

Last week, attorney Rose found out that the DOC granted Rodriquez medical parole, which is usually done when a prisoner is not expected to live long. She says an earlier petition for medical parole had been denied, and she was surprised to learn the DOC had requested it.

"The only time I have ever seen the DOC itself initiate a petition is for these men on ventilators, suffering from COVID," Rose said.

In November, at least two prisoners died within a day of being granted medical parole and therefore, were not counted as COVID deaths in state custody. Outside of those two people, the state reports 17 DOC prisoners have died of COVID-19. At least two men in county jails have also died from the disease.

Nelson Rodriquez's mother, Carmen Berry, says because medical parole has been granted she can now talk with her son's health care providers, although she can not see her son because of pandemic-related visiting restrictions. She says the doctors tell her that her son appears to be improving, and he is responding to touch and voices.

"I can't wait to hold him in my arms," Berry says. "We're making plans for someday. So just, it's kind of sad that we've got that someday in such a manner, and he almost lost his life. I'm thankful, but we're still not out of the woods."

This segment aired on January 18, 2021.

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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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