Ombudsman Tasked With Overseeing Prisons' COVID Response Placed On Paid Leave

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Massachusetts Department of Correction badge. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Massachusetts Department of Correction badge. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

There's been another delay in having an independent official oversee coronavirus mitigation efforts in state prisons.

Seth Peters, the first person appointed to the new position of ombudsman for the Department of Correction, was suddenly placed on paid administrative leave Tuesday after WBUR inquired about whether he is the same Seth Peters who was involved in a wrongful death lawsuit that UMass Memorial settled nine years ago.

In a report to lawmakers last week, the Department of Correction (DOC) and the UMass Chan Medical School said Peters, a Connecticut Air National Guard public health officer and former Rhode Island health official, had been chosen as ombudsman and would be monitoring COVID in state prisons.

"The Office will work independently to investigate and monitor the DOC for compliance with public health standards and concerns with DOC
practices as they relate to the management of COVID-19," the report said.

The wrongful death lawsuit accuses a Seth Peters of falsifying records when he worked as a UMass EMT, before he went on to become Worcester's chief of epidemiology. The Seth Peters named to the ombudsman position also held that position, according to the DOC report to lawmakers.

UMass Chan Medical School said Peters was placed on paid administrative leave Tuesday while it conducts an investigation, but said it would not comment otherwise on personnel matters. The DOC referred questions to UMass. Efforts to reach Peters were not successful.

The wrongful death lawsuit alleged that in 2008 Peters responded to a patient who was having a heart attack and had the man walk down three flights of stairs. After the patient died, Peters allegedly changed the records of the incident and was later accused of lying to state investigators. UMass settled the suit for $1 million.

"I'm glad they decided to place him on administrative leave, however, I'm dismayed that he obviously wasn't properly vetted to begin with," said Liz Matos, executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts. "This is an incredibly important position — literally responsible for ensuring people's lives are protected who have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19."

In announcing the position, the DOC said the ombudsman would be independent and monitor compliance with public health standards and COVID mitigation. State Senator and gubernatorial candidate Sonia Chang-Diaz wrote the budget language for the position last year.

"The criminal justice system is in desperate need of systemic changes and independent oversight and that's exactly why I wrote the language of the budget provision to require an independent ombudsman," Chang-Diaz said.

Chang-Diaz and members of the legislature's Criminal Justice Reform Caucus have written to the DOC asking why a different candidate that had been vetted by the state attorney general was not chosen as ombudsman. The AG's office has said the legislature needs to provide more clarity about the position.

Representative Mary Keefe, a member of the criminal justice reform caucus, said because it appears that Peters was involved in a lawsuit alleging that he falsified records after the death of a patient, she doesn't think Peters should be in the post.

"The person holding this position is going to have so much authority and responsibility for the health of our incarcerated citizens," Keefe said. "I think you're going to want somebody who is pretty impeccable."

Keefe and caucus co-chair Senator Jamie Eldridge are asking UMass for more information about the appointment.

"It's really infuriating and and really disappointing that there's already been such a delay on appointing this ombudsman," Eldridge said.

More than 2,600 coronavirus cases have been reported among DOC prisoners. Twenty-one prisoners have died from the virus since the pandemic began, not including at least two men who died of COVID shortly after they were granted medical parole and were no longer considered in state custody.

This article was originally published on September 22, 2021.

This segment aired on September 22, 2021.

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Deborah Becker 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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