Letter Sent to Governor Baker on the Department of Correction’s response to COVID-19

Governor Charles Baker

Massachusetts State House, 24 Beacon St.

Office of the Governor, Room 280

Boston, MA 02133

 

December 4, 2020

 

Dear Governor Baker,

 

We write to you on the issue of measures that the Department of Correction has taken, and continues to take, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to protect the mental and physical health of incarcerated individuals in the Commonwealth.

 

We appreciate the steps that your administration has taken to preserve the health and safety of those incarcerated since the beginning of the pandemic. These actions include: ensuring the availability of hand sanitizer in all living areas and the availability of personal protective equipment to inmates, temporarily suspending visitation to protect the health and safety of those incarcerated and staff and working to implement technology that will allow video calls at every facility by the end of the year, partnering with the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security and Wellpath to provide universal testing for inmates at all facilities in the spring and continuing to provide testing as needed, and ensuring that inmates continue to have the ability to earn good time despite disruptions in educational programming due to the pandemic.

 

However, these actions fall short when it comes to ensuring the health and safety of those who are incarcerated in our state. We are deeply concerned about the protocol regarding testing, isolation, and the implementation of the home confinement program.

 

Thus far, the Department of Corrections has undertaken testing on individuals who are symptomatic and conducts routine testing only when an outbreak occurs. This current schedule is woefully inadequate and the problem is exacerbated by the lack of routine testing and mandatory mask wearing for members of the staff, many of whom travel between facilities. The Department of Corrections continues to operate below the standards set forth by public health guidance regarding testing. Additionally, the lack of transparency related to data collection and contact tracing makes it difficult to accurately identify how many staff members in each facility have tested positive, endangering our ability to assess the situation in each facility.

 

The Department of Corrections has also failed to adequately protect incarcerated individuals through appropriate quarantine measures. Overcrowding remains a concern, and symptomatic patients who have not yet been diagnosed are improperly housed together with confirmed cases, which can increase the spread of the illness.

 

We continue to be greatly concerned regarding the use facility-wide lockdowns and solitary confinement as quarantine measures. We know that extended solitary confinement increases anxiety, depression, and suicidality, and that it disproportionately affects vulnerable populations, including LGBTQ incarcerated individuals.

 

As highlighted by the Department of Justice’s investigation of the mental health services in Massachusetts correctional facilities, incarcerated individuals are being left without resources or protection. The Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery has had difficulty getting answers from the Commissioner about measures being taken to ensure we are meeting the mental health needs of this population. It is clear that we are not only failing to provide adequate mental health care to incarcerated individuals, but that actions of the Department of Correction are responsible for further unsafe conditions.

 

Finally, the courts ordered that the Department of Corrections implement a home confinement program to help decrease crowding, as operating above 85% capacity has been tied to higher rates of the virus. However, the Commissioner has yet to commit to a specific schedule to begin the program. Also, the narrow criteria for release does not take into account the unique circumstances of the pandemic affecting employment and education opportunities, severely limiting the number of eligible individuals. Rather than being committed to the safety and health of individuals in their care, the Department of Corrections has allowed the virus to run rampant in facilities with minimal preventative measures in place and little to no means of recourse for those individuals or organizations advocating on their behalf.

 

Negligence within the Department of Corrections should be investigated, and appropriate, evidence-based steps to address current gaps in care in facilities should be taken. Mandating routine testing, mask wearing, appropriate isolation protocols, and implementing decarceration efforts like the home confinement program and maximizing good time credits would help minimize the risk of further coronavirus outbreaks in Massachusetts correctional facilities.

 

We appreciate your time and consideration of the above request.

 

Sincerely,

 

Marjorie C. Decker                                                                   Julian Cyr
House Chair                                                                              Senate Chair
State Representative – 25th Middlesex District               State Senator – Cape and Islands

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