SJC urged to reduce prison population during COVID

SJC urged to reduce prison population during COVID

DOC says 81% of inmates vaccinated; zero active cases

September 10, 2021
Commonwealth Magazine
By Shira Schoenberg

THE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION is not doing enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19 because it has failed to take meaningful steps to reduce its prison population, prisoners’ rights advocates are charging in a case currently before the Supreme Judicial Court. The department counters that it has done everything possible to stop the virus’s spread – most notably, vaccinating inmates – and it cannot release many more prisoners under state law. 

The debate is part of ongoing litigation in the case, Stephen Foster v. Carol Mici, through which the courts have monitored how state correction officials are handling the pandemic and whether the agency is protecting  prisoners t in accordance with the state constitution. The Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments Friday.

Bonita Tenneriello, an attorney for Prisoners’ Legal Services, said the dangers of COVID-19 remain “very real” in prisons, as the contagious Delta variant spreads throughout Massachusetts. By not reducing the prison population, the Department of Correction “didn’t do the one thing we know is most important, which is allow for social distancing,” she argued in court. 

The Prisoners’ Legal Services brief says that although prison admissions have dropped during the pandemic, the state actually suspended operations at two facilities (MCI-Shirley’s minimum security prison, which held 169 men at the beginning of the year, and South Middlesex Correctional Center, which held 27 women), resulting in more densely populated existing prisons. “Prisoners continue to live in dormitories housing 40 to 80 people, sleeping so close they can touch their neighbor’s bed, and they are forced into close contact in crowded lines for medication and meals and busy common spaces,” Tenneriello wrote in the brief. 

Tenneriello said home confinement has been used only a handful of times. The prisons stopped offering programming during the pandemic that would have allowed prisoners to earn “good time,” or time off their sentences, for participating.  

Tenneriello argued that the spread of the Delta variant requires continuing protection measures, since about half of correction officers have refused vaccinations and since prisons are high-risk for spread, with crowded conditions, poor ventilation, and low-quality health care. In August, a COVID outbreak at the Souza Baranowski prison had between 72 and 100 cases. 

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