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State Rescinds 'Good Time' For Vaccine Offer To Prisoners After Baker Intervenes

As Massachusetts provides coronavirus vaccines to those incarcerated, COVID upticks are reported in some local jails.

Norfolk County Sheriff Patrick McDermott reported 73 positive tests among prisoners last week and said one detainee is hospitalized. Sixteen other prisoners are recovering from the virus, so 89 prisoners at the Dedham facility are now positive. He said those who tested positive are quarantined and receiving medical attention.

"The Norfolk County Sheriff’s office continues to keep the health and safety of inmates and staff at the forefront of our work," McDermott said in an emailed statement. "We continue to follow DPH and CDC guidelines which include the wearing of masks by both staff and inmates, regular deep cleaning and sanitization of the facility, and encouraging both staff and inmates to vaccinate."

At Essex County's jail in Middleton, more than 50 positive cases were reported in the past two weeks; at the Plymouth County jail in Plymouth, 44 positive cases of the virus were reported last week.

In state prisons, there are currently 95 positive cases at nine facilities — down from 197 cases confirmed last week. Thirteen prisoners are hospitalized. The Department of Correction says it is continuing to test and vaccinate prisoners.

"To date, DOC has performed close to 26,000 COVID-19 tests for a current custody population of fewer than 6,600 people," a DOC spokesman said in an emailed statement. "Department-wide universal testing is under way for inmates, patients, and direct custody staff at all facilities."

Massachusetts is one of a handful of states that offered COVID vaccines to those incarcerated in the first phase of its vaccine rollout. Prisoners and others in residential congregate care settings such as group homes and homeless shelters started receiving the first doses of the vaccine in mid January. Since then, more than 4,300 vaccines have been given to those held in jails and prisons and correctional staff. The DOC has administered more than 3,500 vaccines to detainees; the department says about 22% of prisoners refused the shot.

The DOC had said it would offer prisoners a week in "good time" credits off their sentences in exchange for taking both doses of the shot and reading and watching educational materials about the Moderna vaccine. On Wednesday night, after this story was published, the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security said it would not be offering credits. "When the Governor’s office became aware of the memo, the decision was made to rescind it because the memo is not consistent with the Administration’s policies regarding reduced prison terms," spokesperson Jake Wark told WBUR.

"Some inmates are refusing and [correction officers] are too," emailed one prisoner who did not want to be named because he's concerned about possible retaliation. "Most of them do not trust the fact that the vaccine has not been tried, and tested, and will not take it until they are forced to."

In county jails, Hampden County has provided the most vaccine doses to prisoners — 244 of the almost 900 people incarcerated there received the first shot, as well as 585 jail staff members. At the Norfolk County jail in Dedham last month, Sheriff McDermott said about 30% of those offered the vaccine accepted it. At the Middlesex County House of Correction, Sheriff Peter Koutoujian said 166 of the more than 540 men incarcerated there have received the vaccine. The jail is holding education sessions with medical professionals to discuss the vaccine with prisoners and staff. Koutoujian also said that two recently admitted men tested positive for the virus and are in medical quarantine, marking the first positive tests of the virus in his jail since September.

According to the most recent reporting to the state Supreme Judicial Court, 19 DOC prisoners have died from COVID-19. That does not include at least two men who died of the disease shortly after they were granted medical parole. Two men held in county jails also died of COVID 19.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly indicated the number of people vaccinated at Norfolk County jail. The post has been updated; we regret the error.

This article was originally published on February 03, 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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