Lois Ahrens: The real cost of COVID at prisons

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Published: 11/19/2020 4:08:29 PM

In February, incarcerated people, their loved ones, advocates, attorneys and a few legislators warned of the impending COVID disaster in prisons and jails. At San Quentin, Stateville in Illinois and prisons too numerous to mention, outbreaks are happening. In April, a friend at Stateville wrote of watching two men carried out in body bags. He contracted COVID and received no “health care.” Thankfully, he survived.

In Oregon, after September’s wildfires, two prisons were evacuated. Thousands of prisoners, including another friend who was handcuffed to another prisoner, was put on a bus for 12 hours with no food or ability to use a toilet and deposited at another prison where he slept on the floor body to body. They were returned to the prison, where they are incarcerated, and the inevitable outbreak.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker appointees Department of Correction Commissioner Carol Mici and Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders in February could have planned for the inevitable. Now at Norfolk prison, according to the most recent reports I have received, 240 of 1,259 prisoners have COVID. The DOC and Sudders are scrambling. At Norfolk, the Massachusetts prison with the oldest population, people with COVID were moved to a dormitory closed for more than a year due to mold.

This crisis could have been lessened if the Decarceration Bill under COVID (H.4652) proposed in March by Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa became law. It called for the release of all people who pose no threat to the others including 1) those detained because they cannot afford bail under $10,000; 2) those over the age of 50; 3) those medically vulnerable as classified by the CDC; 4) those incarcerated as the result of technical parole or probation violations; 5) those who qualify for medical parole; and 6) those within six months of their release date or within six months of their parole eligibility date.

Norfolk prison is locked down; however, 24/7 guards and staff go in and out. If the governor and his appointees do not care if prisoners live or die, they should at least be concerned about the impact of people working in prisons returning to their homes and communities every day.

Lois Ahrens


Lois Ahrens is the founding director of The Real Cost of Prisons Project, a national organization based in Northampton.

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