Guest Columnist Lois Ahrens: ‘When will they be held responsible?’


Published: 2/8/2021 4:35:24 PM

According to the Jan. 27 Special Masters Report, 2,861 women and men incarcerated in Massachusetts’ state prisons have become infected COVID-19. The total number of people incarcerated is 6,528. At Norfolk prison, the state prison with the oldest population, almost 50% of the men are or have been infected. At Framingham women’s prison, 94 of 163 women have had COVID.

In February and March 2020, advocates, attorneys and loved ones of incarcerated people filed lawsuits, wrote letters, protested and demanded that the Department of Correction and the governor take all possible measures to release people who were: 1) eligible for medical parole, 2) had six months left on a sentence, 3) in prison for parole violations, and 4) had earned positive parole votes. It took months for 300 people who earned parole to actually be released because the Parole Board had not established a home plan for them.

We knew that in prisons maintaining 6 feet of social distancing is impossible. Absurdly and cruelly, it was suggested by that people locked in a cell and sleeping in bunk beds, sleep head to toe.

On March 30, Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa filed decarceration legislation (H4652), which if passed would have helped avert what we knew would be a catastrophe. Only 29 out of 200 legislators co-sponsored. It did not pass.

In a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker on April 14, the ACLU of Massachusetts and the MA Public Health Association wrote: “On March 24, 2020, the ACLU of Massachusetts filed an emergency petition with the Committee for Public Counsel Services and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers asking the Supreme Judicial Court to take immediate action to limit the spread of COVID-19 by reducing the number of people incarcerated in the state. By the time we filed our reply brief six days later, the virus had surfaced in four correctional facilities, at oral argument the next day, the Department of Correction revealed that 17 prisoners had been diagnosed with the virus; and by the time the Supreme Judicial Court issued its decision on April 3, two prisoners had died.”

Ten months later, I received a letter from an 80-year-old friend incarcerated at Norfolk prison. He wrote: “As a prisoner, I was very apprehensive about the consequences of COVID pandemic in prisons. And, I was soon enveloped by a grim sense of foreboding as it became evident that the DOC was not making any effort to reduce the risk to prisoners. Prisoners were locked down 24/7, crowded into very tight quarters on our tiers, sharing bathrooms, chow halls, and closed circuit ventilation systems. It would be impossible to avoid cross-infection if and when the virus slipped though the walls. And, I knew infection could not be kept out indefinitely. The DOC was doing nothing to prepare. There was no reduction in crowding. Even more alarming, prisoner workers were congregated by the hundreds at work each day to disperse to all housing units each night. I could not suppress an inexorable sense of doom about surviving.”

In another letter concerning the DOC’s decision to use ill-fitting DOC made face-masks made of a single layer of cloth, he wrote: “In short, unwilling to expend trivial sums (50¢ to $1), the DOC has made its captive prisoner population vulnerable to the ravages of coronavirus. Thousands of prisoners have become infected in these crowded, shared quarters, inadequately protected by homemade masks. Many prisoners, especially the elderly and vulnerable have suffered untold physical harm, some even losing their lives. Taken together with the DOC’s negligent omission to plan, prepare and execute a rational plan for COVID-19 mitigation in state prisons, these failings and their consequences for helplessly captive prisoners borders on the inexcusable.”

A year ago, the Department of Correction had no plan. It still has no plan. In the last year, every attempt to save people’s lives have been resisted including its failure to release prisoners to home confinement and to furlough others which could lessen crowding; an obstructionist Parole Board still operating as if there is no crisis; the cruel disregard of prison superintendents to not submit petitions for medical parole for people whose health is severely compromised and who pose no threat to the community, many who were eligible for medical parole even before COVID; denying medical parole to two dying prisoners until hours before their deaths when they were hospitalized so as not appear on the DOC lists deaths from COVID in prison; and sending men infected with COVID to a section of Norfolk prison had been closed for years due to mold.

The deliberate indifference of Superintendent of the Department of Correction Carol Mici, Secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security Tom Turco, Parole Board Gloriann Moroney, the superintendents of each prison, Gov. Baker and the guards and bureaucrats just following orders have led to needless death and the suffering of thousands of men and women and their loved ones. Rather than heeding the warnings of public health experts, of attorneys, advocates and prisoners themselves, each and all have taken no steps to prevent what is unfolding. Each is culpable.

When will they be held responsible? Where will they be tried for their cruelty and their lack of humanity?

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

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