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Massachusetts Incarceration Numbers Rise, After Steep Drop

An inmates stands in a cell inside one of Massachusetts' county jails. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
An inmates stands in a cell inside one of Massachusetts' county jails. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, many states including Massachusetts took steps to reduce the number of people incarcerated in an effort to stem the spread. The result was a double-digit drop in the number of people incarcerated by June, but in the fall, that population started to go up again.

Those steps included efforts to grant release to some prisoners, especially those who had not been convicted, and to make fewer arrests on charges that could result in incarceration.

A report from the Vera Institute of Justice looked at incarceration numbers throughout the country from the end of 2019 to September 2020. In Massachusetts, it found county jail and state prison populations dropped 23% between the end of 2019 and September 2020 from 17,501 to 13,405 people.

But between June and September 2020, the overall jail and prison population increased 4%, with local jail populations jumping by 12%.

Nationwide, there were similar numbers, showing drops at the start of the pandemic and upticks in the incarcerated population beginning last summer.

"We see a trend in Massachusetts that is echoed across the country," said Jasmine Heiss, director of the In Our Backyards initiative at the Vera Institute for Justice. "The reality is that this year has been unprecedented and that means we'll have to continue to carefully watch these trends. "

County jails, more so than state prisons, accounted for the largest increases in incarceration after June. In Massachusetts, Suffolk County had the biggest jump, with an 18% increase in its incarcerated population between June and September.

"The rapid growth in Suffolk County is troubling," said Jacob Kang-Brown, senior research associate at the Vera Institute. "I think one of the reasons that we saw jail populations growing was that police and sheriffs began to arrest people again at higher rates. So people made the choice to let the jail population increase, as opposed to keeping with the policies that they first implemented at the beginning of the pandemic to keep the jail population low, to help protect public health. "

The report also looked at the use of jails by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the United States Marshals Service. The researchers found that overall ICE detention decreased more than 70% from August 2019 to December 2020, while the total number of people detained in jails and other detention settings by USMS remained virtually unchanged from 2019 to late 2020. More than half of the people detained by USMS were held in local jails.

The incarceration rate in Massachusetts is considered relatively low compared to other states. At least 19 people have died in state prisons since the start of the pandemic, not including those granted medical parole shortly before they died, who are not counted as COVID deaths in state custody.  Prisoners in Massachusetts began receiving the coronavirus vaccine last month.

"[P]eople made the choice to let the jail population increase, as opposed to keeping with the policies that they first implemented at the beginning of the pandemic to keep the jail population low, to help protect public health."

The Vera Institute report says there were at least 2,020 coronavirus deaths in state and federal prisons in 2020 and that there are no current estimates of jail deaths due to COVID-19 in most states.

Recommendations released with the report call for continued reductions in incarceration, with an eye to ensuring that policies focus on racial equity. They also urge local, state and federal authorities to take steps to protect the health and dignity of those incarcerated.

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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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