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Ombudsman Overseeing Mass. Prisons' COVID Mitigation Efforts Is Fired

Traducido en español por El Planeta Media.

The man hired to oversee pandemic mitigation efforts in state prisons was removed from the post days after reports last week surfaced that he may have been involved in a wrongful death lawsuit nine years ago.

A spokesman for University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School said Monday that Seth Peters, who was appointed as the Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) ombudsman earlier this month, was no longer employed by the school.

"We are in the process of identifying an interim person for the ombudsman role while a search recommences," UMass Chan Medical School spokesman Mark Shelton said in an emailed statement.

Peters was placed on paid administrative leave last week after WBUR asked the school  if he was the same Seth Peters involved in a 2012 lawsuit. The suit alleged that Peters, who was working as a UMass EMT at the time, falsified the records about forcing a man in cardiac arrest to walk down three flights of stairs. The man later died.

Peters is a public health officer in the Connecticut Air National Guard and a former public health epidemiologist with the Rhode Island Department of Health. He also worked as chief of epidemiology for the Worcester Division of Public Health.

Some state lawmakers called for Peters to be removed from the post, which the Legislature created to oversee how state prisons were handling the coronavirus pandemic.

"The person holding this position is going to have so much authority and responsibility for the health of our incarcerated citizens," state Rep. Mary Keefe, co-chair of the Legislature's Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, said shortly after Peters was placed on leave. "I think you're going to want somebody who is pretty impeccable."

The appointment of Peters raises questions about the vetting process and whether the DOC ombudsman will provide truly independent oversight, according to Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts Executive Director Lizz Matos.

"It is unsurprising that Mr. Peters was fired from the ombudsman role with UMass, said Matos. "What is surprising is that he was hired in the first place for such an important position with so little vetting or consideration. We are now 10 months past when this language was originally adopted by the legislature and there is still no ombudsman leading this crucial oversight effort."

The advocates and some lawmakers are urging UMass to quickly appoint a new ombudsman. The leaders of the state's criminal justice reform caucus wrote to UMass Chan Medical School Monday asking that Harvard Chan School of Public Health Epidemiologist Dr. Monik Jiménez be appointed to the position.

"Given her exemplary track record as a medical professional and dedication to representing the lived experiences of vulnerable populations, including the experiences of incarcerated individuals, we are confident that Dr. Jiménez would satisfy the codified expectations for Executive Director with all the gravity that it deserves," wrote Keefe and state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, caucus co-chairs, in the letter.

They say the state attorney general vetted Jiménez for the post and she is eager to take over.

According to a report to the Legislature's Joint Committee on the Judiciary and Joint Committee on Public Health, the ombudsman will lead a staff of at least three administrators. The report said the ombudsman will also receive support from advisors in correctional health, infection prevention and business intelligence and analytics.

The ombudsman would be required to create a set of health standards for all state prisons and to investigate complaints and respond to inquiries. The ombudsman is to be independent of DOC and would also provide regular reports to lawmakers about the pandemic behind bars.

The office would have a $1.5 million budget to pay for operations through June of 2022.

This article was originally published on September 27, 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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