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Coalition Calls On Gov. Baker To Release Prisoners Because Of Coronavirus

Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater. (Screenshot via Google Maps)

Several community groups have joined forces to press the Baker administration to reduce the number of people incarcerated in Massachusetts to limit the risk and spread of the coronavirus among prisoners and correctional officers. The groups outlined a 10-point plan to shrink incarceration and help with social distancing behind bars.

Massachusetts Public Health Association Executive Director Carlene Pavlos said social distancing is impossible in correctional settings and urgent action is needed to release inmates. She said several other governors have taken such steps, and Gov. Charlie Baker should take action. Pavlos said her group has written to the Republican governor about this but has not received a response.

The 10-point plan released Tuesday included steps such as granting parole to some who are within six months of their parole date; using clemency powers to release medically vulnerable prisoners; and improving housing resources for those released. The groups argued letting out more people from correctional settings would protect both those incarcerated and correctional officers.

"The release of prisoners is the only way to stem the public health emergency that's facing our prisoners, those that are incarcerated," said Rev. David Lewis, with the Mount Calvary Baptist Church and a board member of the Pioneer Valley Project, a group that advocates for disadvantaged communities. "Social distancing is impossible to do in prisons, and infections are spreading dangerously fast."

The state Supreme Judicial Court last month ruled that some prisoners are eligible to seek release, such as those awaiting trial and those held on some parole and probation violations. The SJC ordered that weekly reports be compiled to show how the virus is affecting jails and prisons. The reports do not list the number of COVID-19 deaths.

"Social distancing is impossible to do in prisons, and infections are spreading dangerously fast."

Rev. David Lewis

The latest SJC report issued Tuesday shows that more than 1,100 Massachusetts prisoners have been released over the past five weeks from jails and prisons. The report also shows that some 3,200 prisoners have been tested for the coronavirus and more than 500 are positive.

"State criminal justice agencies will continue to protect public health and public safety, review each case on its merits, and work with our partners and stakeholders as we confront this unprecedented global health crisis,” a spokesperson for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security said in a statement Tuesday.

The Department of Correction reported a big jump in the number of prisoners tested — more than 2,700 in total — since April 5. That's in comparison to 1,200 prisoners tested, according to last week's report. Most of the increase in testing occurred at three DOC facilities: Bridgewater State Hospital, MCI-Shirley and the Old Colony Correctional Center.

It's not clear why the SJC report does not include prisoner deaths. The special master appointed by the SJC to compile the report said the court did not order that the reports include the number of deaths. Of the eight prisoner COVID-19 deaths reported in Massachusetts, five were at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, two were at MCI-Shirley and one at the Essex County jail.

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