Release prisoners in MA to protect against COVID-19
Release prisoners in MA to protect against COVID-19
RE: We endorse the Act Regarding Decarceration and COVID-19 (House Bill 4652).
Dear Gov. Baker, Representative Cronin, Senator Eldridge,
We write to express our support for the Act Regarding Decarceration and COVID-19 (House Bill 4652). We are individuals and organizations concerned about the heightened COVID-19 risks for incarcerated people. Our goal is to advance policies and creative solutions to ensure that the infection behind bars is halted. We advocate for public officials to use the full extent of their authority to create conditions for safe and meaningful release of incarcerated people who are at elevated risk. We thank you for your leadership during this challenging time, and for your commitment to help alleviate the impacts of the epidemic on incarcerated people, one of Massachusetts’ most vulnerable populations.
Massachusetts’ prisons and jails are already vectors of infection. MCI-Framingham, MCI-Shirley, MTC Bridgewater, and jails in Middlesex, Essex, Hampshire, and Suffolk counties have serious outbreaks (numbers below are by May 3). Recent increases in testing at MCI-Framingham revealed that in the population of nearly 200 women incarcerated there, 71 tested positive. MTC Bridgewater has already had five incarcerated people die. At MCI-Shirley, two men have died, and 129 have tested positive, out of 250 test administered.
Outbreaks in jails impact both larger and smaller facilities across the Commonwealth. For example, according to information mandated by the Supreme Judicial Court and made available to the public by the ACLU, Hampshire county, with 157 people in jails, has only tested 38, just under half of whom were positive for the virus. Essex county, which has a larger incarcerated population (1161), has tested only 171 people: 38% of whom tested positive. These numbers are indicative, but there simply is not yet enough testing to fully understand the extent of the epidemic behind bars.
We note that the infection rates are also high for the Corrections Officers and other personnel who work in prisons and jails. Further, maintaining an indefinite, almost complete lockdown at all facilities is unsustainable and is an abuse of prisoners’ rights.
House Bill 4652 is the most serious effort to date to take the threat behind bars seriously and to implement strong measures that could make a difference. It marks a fundamental shift from a default policy of maintaining the status quo, to identifying incarcerated people who are at elevated risk of infection, are being held for minor infractions, or are near the end of their terms, and, unless there is strong reason to keep them locked up, to release them.
The Bill implements critical reforms at the county level, mandating releases for all individuals who are: incarcerated solely for possession of a controlled substance; over age 50; have a medical condition that increases their vulnerability; qualify for medical parole; are detained solely because failure to pay a fee or fine; or are incarcerated for technical violations of parole and/or probation.
It also provides detailed instruction to the Department of Correction (DOC), regarding release of all individuals who: are over 50; have a medical condition that increases their vulnerability to COVID 19; qualify for medical parole; are incarcerated solely due to technical violations of probation and/or parole; or are within six months of completing their sentence. We note, according to DOC information from January 1, 2019, this would include 2280 people over age 50. It is important to understand, as noted in the most recent MA DOC Three-year Recidivism Rates report (2014), that “older inmates are less likely to recidivate.”
The Bill also provides clear guidance to the parole board regarding granting parole to all individuals who are: incarcerated due to technical violations of parole; within 6 months of the end of their sentence; and have been denied parole at earlier hearings.
All of these releases are subject to a caveat in cases where clear and convincing evidence shows that an incarcerated person would pose an immediate and physical threat to the community.
Some of the people who will be impacted by this Bill have not even been convicted; they are being detained pre-trial. Others were not sentenced to death: yet seven have already died while under the charge of the Commonwealth. This Bill can save lives. People who are locked up are at increased risk because of their living conditions. Those who are elderly or have medical preconditions are exceptionally vulnerable. Additionally, many of them originally come from communities that are disproportionately impacted by the virus.
Incarcerated people rely entirely on public authorities’ decisions to protect their health -- it is currently an unmet obligation. We further want to emphasize that many of the intended outcomes of this Bill could be achieved by encouraging the Governor to use his existing furlough authority.
We urge the Commonwealth to take parallel measures to support: testing people who release; providing quarantine space for those who require it (in now empty hotels, dormitories, or other locations); and release programming for all who require it. These additional measures are crucial in order to maximize the positive outcomes of saving lives through releasing prisoners.
Thank you for your leadership.