The ACLU of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Public Health Association today called on Governor Baker to decrease the number of people who are currently incarcerated in Massachusetts. The Governor must do everything in his power to ensure that prison and jail sentences do not become de facto death sentences as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak, the organizations wrote in a letter released today.
“The ACLU and public health experts have been sounding the alarm: People incarcerated in prisons, jails, and detention centers are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “With a growing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts prisons and jails, public officials must act swiftly to prevent more illness and death among people in custody, correctional staff, and the general public. Massachusetts can be a leader in protecting its people, especially its most vulnerable residents, from the worst of COVID-19.”
In the letter, the ACLU and MPHA call for the implementation of measures to allow for physical distancing in prisons and jails, including ending all multiple bunking in cells; ensuring that dorms only use single-use beds that are six feet apart in all directions; and staggering dayroom, recreation, and meal service in dining halls. In order to meet physical distancing guidelines and substantially limit the spread of infection, the organizations ask Governor Baker to reduce the incarcerated population by ordering the Parole Board to expedite previously-made parole decisions for hundreds of people who have been granted parole but have not yet been released; amend the Executive Clemency Guidelines in light of the pandemic, and swiftly issue new parole and commutation decisions for currently incarcerated people.
“When the COVID-19 pandemic began, MPHA recognized that marginalized communities—particularly those impacted by structural racism and poverty—would be hit hardest by the virus,” said Carlene Pavlos, executive director of MPHA. “Governor Baker and other public officials must ensure everyone has access to safe quarantine. For those who are incarcerated, that means a combination of reducing the number of people in each facility and changing practices systemwide to protect public health. Outbreaks in correctional facilities among incarcerated people and staff will lead to surging demand for intensive health care, significantly impacting the health of surrounding communities and further straining the capacity of our hospitals.”
The letter also urges the Governor to use his constitutional and emergency powers to make dormitories and hotels available as living spaces for people who are in need of places to quarantine and engage in physical distancing, including some people released from carceral settings and others experiencing homelessness. For those who must remain incarcerated and for the safety of corrections staff, the ACLU and MPHA call on Governor Baker to appoint a qualified independent public health expert to recommend and oversee mitigation efforts within state and county facilities and to inspect facilities to ensure compliance with CDC guidelines.
The letter follows a Supreme Judicial Court ruling in an ACLU lawsuit that will help some pretrial detainees seeking release due to the pandemic. In its ruling, the Court makes clear that the state’s executive branch has the authority to address the danger facing all those currently serving sentences.