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“People Are Going to Die”

COVID-19 has reached Massachusetts prisons and jails, and no one is being released

By Will Meyer

As of last night, according to the latest tally in MassLive, 11 people in Massachusetts jails — including incarcerated persons and staff — have tested positive for COVID-19.

The National Guard has been dispatched to Massachusetts prisons and jails to set up “screening tents” and administer temperature tests to people entering the facilities.

According to the report, at least 10 cases of COVID-19 have been identified at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, a peneteniary for people accused of sex crimes. The other known case is a staff member at Souza, a maximum security prison in Shirley, which was the site of a multi-week lockdown after a group of prisoners assaulted three guards earlier this year.

During the lockdown, after the perpetrators of the assault were shipped off to other prisons, correctional officers retaliated with dogs, tasers, and other forms of violence. Visits were halted, cutting people on the inside out from their loved ones and their attorneys. As a result, State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa explained that incarcerated people asked for mental health care in the wake of being caged in isolation for 22 hours per day — a demand prison officials said they were ill-equipped to meet.

Additionally, a new expose by WBUR notes that “poor medical care” played a significant role in the 195 deaths that occured in Massachusetts county jails over the past decade.

This was, of course, before coronavirus posed an existential threat to incarcerated people, who the Massachusetts ACLU’s Carol Rose says are at a “heightened risk” for infection.

According to an affidavit prepared by Dr. Christopher Beyrer, a professor of Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins, it is “an urgent priority in this time of national public health emergency to reduce the number of persons in detention as quickly as possible.”

He writes that, “Given the experience in China as well as the literature on infectious diseases in jail, an outbreak of COVID-19 among the U.S. jail and prison population is likely. Releasing as many inmates as possible is important to protect the health of inmates, the health of correctional facility staff, the health of health care workers at jails and other detention facilities, and the health of the community as a whole.”

At the Hampshire County House of Corrections in Northampton, despite the necessity of social distancing, those being held are living in unsanitary, cramped conditions without proper hygiene. According to attorney Dana Goldblatt, who spoke to 28 people incarcerated at the Hampshire County Jail, some of whom have conditions such as hepatitis C, high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, and heart disease, “they are all just terrified.”

Goldblatt asked the people she spoke to to describe their living conditions. They live in bunk beds that are two feet apart in rooms with 14-16 people. Outside of their cells, they spend time in common areas with dozens of people, where it would, she says, be difficult to socially isolate if someone were to become sick. There are 7 toilets, 7 sinks, and 7 showers for approximately 60 people. During educational programming, incarcerated people must sit close to those awaiting trial who frequently leave the jail. Additionally, guards — who come and go three times a day — are not tested for coronavirus, only “checked” for fever.

Despite the severity of the situation, at the time of this writing, no one has been released from the Hampshire County Jail—including those who are over 70 years of age or who are scheduled to soon be released.

The Western Prison Abolition Network has launched a phone zap campaign to pressure local sheriffs and District Attorneys to release prisoners before COVID-19 spreads. The campaign mirrors a statewide week of action.

“DA Sullivan’s office uses keeping people safe as a major reason for drug arrests. If we don’t put users behind bars he argues they’ll die,” Goldblatt wrote in an email to The Shoestring. “Well now he’s keeping them in jail, despite Hep-C and asthma and all their other preconditions, and leaving them to die while COVID-19 whips through the jail.”

“These people are going to die,” she fears. “They are going to die because nobody cared enough to let them out.”

Will Meyer is co-editor of The Shoestring. (Photo Google Earth)

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