As COVID-19 hits prisons, worry spreads


March 23, 2020
Commonwealth Magazine
By Sarah Betancourt

Officials, advocates differ over preparedness

WITH THREE PRISONERS and one corrections officer diagnosed with the coronavirus at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, the Department of Correction has developed a response plan for containment of the virus, including setting up screening tents with the help of the National Guard to take the temperature of all employees entering state prisons.

The department is using Centers for Disease Control and state Department of Health guidelines “to reduce, to the greatest degree possible, the potential impact of this virus on our correctional system while maintaining core services,” Carol Mici, the Department of Correction commissioner, said in a statement.

Elizabeth Matos, executive director of the advocacy group Prisoners’ Legal Services, says her organization has had reports of lack of soap, no alcohol-based hand sanitizer, inmates being double-bunked despite availability of single cells for separation, and civilian staff walking in and out of the medical units with no protective gear.

“There will undoubtedly be more [COVID-19 cases] and in other prisons and jails because the DOC and Commonwealth were not nearly as aggressive as they should have been at the outset regarding this population.” Matos said.

With no intensive care units inside the prisons, Matos says prisoners who become seriously ill will have to be transported to hospitals that are already near capacity. “We need to release people so that we can better contain and manage the crisis in the Commonwealth’s prisons and jails and in the communities where the people who work inside live,” she said.

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