“This call for releases is not the advocacy community trying to capitalize on an opportunity to decarcerate … Prison health care is already overstressed and a lack of response will absolutely kill people.”
On Friday, March 20, Massachusetts state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa filed An Act regarding Decarceration and COVID-19, emergency legislation addressing the potential coronavirus contamination behind bars.
The day before, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins called for review and release of those who pose no risk to the public, and several sheriffs and prosecutors joined her call for action. While there have been few reported coronavirus cases in Massachusetts prisons or jails, activists across the state have written a number of notices, letters and op-eds, and joined with nationwide coalitions, calling for the governor to use his powers to upend the crisis that could unfold in our prisons and jails.
If we do not act soon, the pandemic will lead to untold deaths.
As of this writing, there has been no move to decarcerate. In one case, the Essex County sheriff even brought prisoners back from a sober home to supposedly protect them behind bars. In a statement for reporters sent to me by email from Jason Dobson, deputy director of communications for the Mass Department of Correction, it appears the DOC is trying to assure the public it has things under control—noting a plan the department has in place to quarantine sick prisoners, as well as “access to soap and running water … available to all inmates and staff,” along with “cleaning and disinfectant … also readily available for inmates and staff.”
Ask people who live behind bars, though, and you hear a different story.
“One guy told my husband they were going to get hand sanitizer, bleach, and soap,” Cathy Rosa told DigBoston. “Don’t hold your breath.”
Rosa’s husband is a lifer at North Central Correctional Institute in Gardner, Mass, where he can get one bar of hotel-size soap every other week, and has to buy any additional bars in the canteen for 89 cents. Like all prisoners in state and county correctional facilities, he is not allowed to have hand sanitizer with 60-percent or more alcohol, and receives one roll of toilet paper a week and no paper towels, Rosa said in a telephone interview. She added that her husband works a cleaning job in the institution, and has not seen sanitizing taking place. He reported that as of last week, there were still 200 people in large groups going to the chow hall, with many prisoners together in the gym, and certainly most still housed in two-person cells except for new admits, who—even more problematically—live in a dorm-like setting.
“I’m scared because of the COVID-19,” Rosa said. “He’s 61. I’m afraid they will delay him being moved to a step-down program, even though he got a positive parole decision recently. He is high risk, diabetic, a heart patient, and has high blood pressure. I’m angry too because they aren’t doing anything differently and these men are vulnerable.”
There are approximately 17,000 people in our prisons and jails as of March 16, 2020, according to the DOC. Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, said among them, the elderly prison population is defined as over 50; as of January 2019, there were 2,500 people over 50 years old in our prisons, many with low-level sentences or awaiting trial.
Incarcerated people have poorer health than the general US population, and even in the best of times, medical care is limited. According to public health experts, even before coronavirus, those behind bars were “at special risk of infection, given their living situations,” and “may also be less able to participate in proactive measures to keep themselves safe.”
Shawn Fisher, a lifer at Old Colony Correctional Center (OCCC) in Bridgewater, wrote to me on March 17 that he fears “improper screening of employees entering the facility.” He doesn’t know if temperatures are being taken, and said correction officers have only been asked questions about recent travel if they have a fever or are sick. Fisher fears there is a lack of transparency and who knows if someone is “lying?” He said there is cleaning every four hours, but no mention of what products are used. He appreciates that the DOC has allowed prisoners two free phone calls a week since the ban on visiting began, but noted there is no COVID-19 testing in sight, and prisoners’ fears of being locked in segregation while sick have only increased. Particularly, Fisher wrote, because “guards are openly seen coughing and sneezing.”
“What we have heard is that there is no consistency throughout state prisons,” Matos of Prisoners’ Legal Services said. There’s no soap in many bathrooms, she added, particularly for prisoners who receive an indigent packet—toothpaste and soap once a week, if they are lucky, or “not enough to get you through all your showers,” according to Matos. There is also a lack of access to hot water in some facilities, reports of uncertainty about how food trays are being cleaned, and some prisons and jails have “no modifications for physical distance” in classes and treatment programs.
“This call for releases is not the advocacy community trying to capitalize on an opportunity to decarcerate,” Matos said. “Anyone who is paying attention with this global pandemic knows that this is a race against time, and saving lives has everything to do with being proactive … Prison health care is already overstressed and a lack of response will absolutely kill people.”
The legislation filed by Sabadosa is in line with what other states are considering, measures that also make an appeal to lawmakers, governors, and mayors. The Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit “working to reduce the use of incarceration in the United States and to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system,” reports, “Among the individuals appropriate for release consideration are people housed in pre-trial detention in jails and … those serving long sentences who have aged out of crime.”
Statistically, the risk of releasing anyone over 50 years old is miniscule—nationally, that demographic only accounts for 2% of new arrests. The Prison Policy Initiative, a non-partisan research group, details how other states are releasing people from jails and prisons, reducing jail admissions, reducing unnecessary face-to-face contact for people on parole and probation, and eliminating medical co-pays. In one example, the news that Iran let out 85,000 prisoners shows that certain initiatives save lives.
Attorney Patricia Garin, who runs the Northeastern Prisoners Rights Clinic and teaches students how to represent lifers at parole hearings, expressed concern that Mass is behind the curve, saying, “It is urgent that our parole board identify all parole-eligible prisoners who are at risk and parole them to the community immediately.”
Rep. Sabadosa’s Act regarding Decarceration and COVID-19 calls for the immediate release of anyone over the age of 50, most who will be under state supervision. It asks for the release of low-risk populations such as those with less than six months left to serve, or those with compromised immune systems. It calls for prisoners held solely for technical violations of probation or parole (not a new arrest, but a violation such as failure to make a parole/probation appointment) to be immediately re-paroled or returned home on probation. It asks that many pretrial individuals be released, and that parole-eligible prisoners be paroled as soon as possible. Also, per the bill, those being incarcerated simply because they cannot pay fines or fees must be released.
In all these cases, jails or the DOC can decide that there is clear and convincing evidence that some individuals would pose a risk to public safety. As the bill clearly states, though, it will take cooperation between sheriffs and the state. The bill requires that decarceration happen within 14 days, and also specifies a number of ways to keep institutions clean and to assure safer facilities for those who get sick.
Sabadosa said her next step is to get other legislators to co-sponsor the bill. She is not yet sure what legislative committee will review the measure, but there will be a chance for the public to submit testimony. The representative said she has done research about best practices, and submitted an “Emergency Preamble” to the bill to clarify the crisis facing Mass: “Whereas, The deferred operation of this act would tend to defeat its purpose, which is to take action to ensure the health and safety of all during the COVID-19 state of emergency, therefore it is hereby declared to be an emergency law, necessary for the immediate preservation of the public safety and health.”
Jean Trounstine is a writer, activist, and professor whose latest book is Boy With a Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice. She is on the steering committee of the Coalition for Effective Public Safety.