2 Mass. prisons mishandled COVID and neglected prisoners, report by disability advocates claims

Some Massachusetts prisons fell short in handling the coronavirus pandemic and neglected disabled and medically vulnerable prisoners, according to an investigation by the Disability Law Center.

A new Disability Law Center (DLC) report released Monday examined coronavirus mitigation efforts within specialized medical units at MCI-Norfolk and MCI-Shirley.

Among the more serious findings in the report:

  • the Department of Correction (DOC) did not adequately protect prisoners with disabilities in those two facilities from a resurgence of the virus
  • COVID testing was limited
  • medical and mental health care was unnecessarily restricted while prisons were locked down during the pandemic

"[The] DOC was certainly faced — like many other facilities and the rest of us across the world — with the daunting task of figuring out what to do during the pandemic," said Tatum Pritchard, interim executive director of the DLC. "We would never suggest that the DOC did not put in a great deal of time and effort into implementing policies and procedures to stem the tide of COVID-19. However, what we found in the end was that DOC's treatment of people with disabilities fell short and there was neglect."

The report includes DOC's initial response to some of the agency's preliminary findings. The DOC said it "did not find substantive evidence to support the findings." The department said it followed public health guidelines and prisoners were provided with adequate medical care — both inside prisons and when outside health care was required.

The DLC is an agency tasked under federal law with monitoring state care for people with disabilities. The investigation was prompted by complaints from prisoners early in the pandemic.

The report said "one of the most devastating consequences" was found in the Critical Stabilization Unit at MCI-Norfolk. There, DLC investigators said the DOC did not appropriately separate COVID-positive prisoners from those who did not contract the virus, resulting in an outbreak that infected "every medically vulnerable prisoner" inside the unit in December 2020. In that dormitory at MCI-Norfolk in January 2022, the report said COVID-positive prisoners were separated from COVID-negative prisoners by a tarp hung from the ceiling.

DLC investigators reviewed the facilities from May 2020 until November 2021, when they presented preliminary findings to the DOC. The investigators also included reports from prisoners about conditions at the facilities in early 2022. Pritchard said investigators reviewed state and DOC documents, court records, prisoners' medical records and spoke with dozens of those in custody at the two prisons, as well as prisoner advocates.

The report also cited incomplete testing for the virus and delays in prisoners receiving outside medical care during the pandemic. It said the state's correctional health care provider Wellpath unnecessarily restricted medical and mental health care while prisons were locked down.

The report said the "policy and practice of delaying and limiting access to vital health care evaluations and services, sanctioned by DOC, resulted in widespread neglect of DOC prisoners with disabilities."

The medical cases of five prisoners were highlighted in the report with names redacted. One example said it took 10 months for a prisoner to get an appointment for heart testing, which then detected issues including an artery aneurysm and an arrhythmia. Pritchard said the delays resulted in further backlogs to getting care for many prisoner with chronic medical conditions.

"The backlogs were rather staggering," Pritchard said. "People who required initial consultations for the appearance of new serious symptoms were not getting them. People with chronic conditions that were supposed to have regular contact with specialists were not seeing specialists."

In the DOC response, it said it has been working on backlogs — most of which were caused by COVID-related capacity constraints on the entire health care system.

The department also pointed out that vaccines were provided to prisoners in January 2021, and the response cited state Supreme Judicial Court rulings on lawsuits that were brought seeking to reduce the number of people incarcerated during the pandemic.

"DLC focuses on MCI-Norfolk and MCI-Shirley, despite the fact that, as of January 7, 2022, there have been no positive cases amongst the inmate population at MCI-Norfolk and 4 positive cases at MCI-Shirley," the DOC response said — emphasizing that positive cases were not in the specialized health units.

The DOC also said the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) has determined the department's response to COVID to be "eminently reasonable."

"In sum, the SJC concluded that the Department’s implementation of a comprehensive vaccination scheme, in addition to its adoption of other non-pharmaceutical measures, reflected a reasonable risk-reduction response," the DOC said.

The DLC report recommends universal COVID testing and screening of prisoners and staff, maintaining a continuity of medical and mental health care when prison movement is restricted by ensuring there is adequate medical staff and improved access to telemedicine and outside medical appointments.

Prisoners advocates say the report points to the need for more independent oversight of state prisons. Lauren Andersen was hired late last year as the DOC ombudsman to monitor the department's coronavirus mitigation efforts. The report says the ombudsman should work to enforce DLC's recommendations.

“The DLC’s new report is just the latest revelation of the systemic neglect of prisoners’ health in DOC facilities,' said Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts.

According to a state report published in October of last year, 21 people imprisoned by the DOC died of COVID-19 during the pandemic.

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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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