Suffolk Superior Court Judge Robert Ullmann has denied an injunction to release more Massachusetts prisoners during the pandemic, but left the door open for prisoners advocates to amend their suit and ask again.
They're promising to do just that.
Ullmann's ruling said the prisoners attorneys did not prove that the Massachusetts Department of Correction has acted with "deliberate indifference" toward the threat of the virus behind bars, noting that the department has tested thousands of prisoners and is now vaccinating those incarcerated. Ullman's ruling acknowledges that it's impossible to socially distance in prisons, but said DOC has taken steps to control outbreaks so that does not meet the legal standard of "deliberate indifference."
"In sum, any shortcomings in the actions of DOC officials to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, and any adverse consequences of those actions or inactions, do not establish deliberate indifference by DOC," Ullmann wrote.
The request for a preliminary injunction is part of a larger suit asking the department to further reduce the prison population and consider programs such as home confinement (where a prisoner can serve a sentence in the community under certain conditions). Prisoners advocates amended the suit citing a new state law passed as a budget line item in December. Approved over Gov. Charlie Baker's veto, it requires the DOC to consider ways to release more people to prevent the spread of the virus.
"Plaintiffs should have an opportunity (to) establish that the December 2020 line-item law changes this legal landscape and gives them a private cause of action. Therefore, plaintiffs may move on an expedited basis for leave of court to amend their Complaint to assert new claims under the law," Ullmann wrote.
Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts, the group that filed the suit, said it will amend its complaint, taking into considering Ullmann's decision.
"The decision recognizes that despite a majority of people in state custody accepting the vaccine, conditions remain unsafe and that prisoners have presented dozens of credible declarations about life-threatening and inhumane conditions. At least 20 are now dead, the majority losing their lives in just the last three months. Thousands more have been infected," said Elizabeth Matos, Executive Director of Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts, in an emailed statement. "As the Legislature recognized, and public health experts agree, providing people in prison masks, cleaning supplies, and even vaccines, is not enough to fulfill the obligations of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It is necessary to release people who can be safely returned to the community where they can take measures to protect themselves."