Sheriffs provide update on COVID-19 protocols, release of inmates

  • Hampden County Sheriff's Department staff wear protective masks while on duty at the House of Corrections in Ludlow.  MARK MURRAY/HAMPDEN COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT

  • A Hampden County Sheriff’s Department inmate manufactures masks. SUBMITTED PHOTO/HAMPDEN COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT

Staff Writer
Published: 4/2/2020 10:42:40 AM
Modified: 4/2/2020 10:42:30 AM

NORTHAMPTON – Sheriffs in Hampshire and Hampden counties are continuing to take measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 into their jails, and both reported that as of Wednesday morning no inmates have tested positive for the infectious disease — though three staff members in Hampden County have tested positive.

In a statement, Hampshire County Sheriff Patrick J. Cahillane said there are no cases of COVID-19 in the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction. On Tuesday, the Massachusetts National Guard erected a medical tent on the grounds of the jail’s campus in Northampton to screen all employees and visiting attorneys before being allowed inside. Staff members who have COVID-19 related symptoms — such as a cough, fever or shortness of breath — are checked by the jail’s medical staff before gaining entry, and will be sent home and monitored “if deemed necessary,” the statement said.

Also as of Wednesday morning, nine people at the Hampshire County jail have posted bail and four others have been placed on electronic monitoring. Cahillane has directed his team to identify the next group of people for “possible safe return to our communities” based on their sentence and home plans, according to the statement.

“For weeks my staff and I have been working to safely return to their communities as many individuals as possible so that we may continue to protect the health and safety of those who will remain incarcerated, and those who will be working in the facility,” Cahillane said in the statement. “The work to protect everyone will continue."

In Ludlow, Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi’s office said no inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, but three staff members have. Those staff members were not correctional officers, and those in contact with those workers were “notified and placed under our COVID-19 medical protocols," according to a statement.

“I am not naive to believe that we will not have a case pop up in our facilities. Jails are a direct reflection of our communities,” Cocchi said in the statement. “However, we have a very strong prevention plan that is working, and as we continue to receive new people into our facility every day, the likelihood that someone will enter with the virus is always present.”

Also, all staff and inmates at the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department as of Monday afternoon are required to wear masks until the pandemic passes as a precaution to prevent the potential spread of the coronavirus. 

“Everyone is cooperating with my directive and the climate in our institutions is extremely positive at the moment,” Cocchi said in the statement. “People feel safer because of this and the other visible efforts we’ve taken to ensure no staff or new inmate brings the virus into our facilities.”

The masks are produced by incarcerated people at the department’s York Street Industries program, which recently came under fire from Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse who argued the inmates were not receiving a fair wage. Each inmate has been given two reusable masks and they must wear one at all times when out of their cells, except for when they are eating, the statement said. The department’s goal is to provide a mask to every inmate in the county correctional system across Massachusetts. 

The Hampden County Sheriff’s Department also screens every employee before their shift, and anyone with symptoms is sent home until they are symptom-free and cleared by medical staff.

In a Monday press conference, Cocchi and Hampden District Attorney Anthony D. Gulluni responded to an emergency petition filed in the state Supreme Judicial Court by the Committee for Public Counsel Services and others which calls for a drastic reduction in incarcerated populations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The request for broad swaths of inmates to be released from our jails and houses of correction are strongly ill-advised,” said Cocchi at the press conference, which was posted online. “Releasing any individual to the community without a proper, thought-out release plan is nothing shy of carelessness.”

Gulluni said Monday that his office has agreed to a “handful” of releases for individuals who are vulnerable to COVID-19 and do not pose a significant risk to public safety.

“To release scores of inmates into our society is a bad idea,” Gulluni said.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com. 
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