A group of concerned legislators — 15 State Senators and 23 State Representatives — have sent a joint letter to Gov. Charlie Baker, urging him, as part of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, to step up the screening and release of inmates from Massachusetts penal institutions.
The letter-writing effort, initiated by State Sen. Mike Barrett (D-Lexington), was inspired by an opinion issued earlier this month by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, five of whose seven current members are Baker appointees.
“Among inmates and correctional officers — we’re concerned about both — the positive cases continue to climb,” Barrett says. “We think it’s quite significant that the Court has issued polite but pointed advice on how to speed up the pace of releases.”
Barrett and his co-signers point to the Supreme Judicial Court’s April 3rd decision on a lawsuit brought by the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency. “We agree,” the Court wrote in the decision, “that the situation is urgent and unprecedented, and that a reduction in the number of people who are held in custody is necessary.”
Says Barrett, “Even as the Court acknowledged significant limits to its own authority over the situation, it went on, in unusually clear terms, to advise the Governor’s Parole Board, and I quote, to ‘use every effort to expedite the several stages of this process as far as reasonably possible so as to reduce the over-all number of incarcerated inmates as quickly as possible.’ We agree with the Court, and we want the Governor to act.”
The legislators acknowledge the logistical and health challenges involved with screening inmates for release. “But, like the Justices,” they write, “we believe your Parole Board, your Department of Corrections, and the county Sheriffs of the Commonwealth can and must move faster.”
The legislators add, “As a follow-up to the Court’s action, the Special Master’s Weekly Report of April 21 is revealing, and we are concerned. Neither the Department of Corrections nor the County Sheriffs provide the Master facility-specific numbers on weekly releases pre-pandemic. Without baselines to facilitate comparisons, we cannot know whether the authorities are heeding the Court’s admonition to expedite releases. Please use the power of your office to obtain the necessary information.”
The County Sheriffs report to the Special Master that, as of April 21, 97 inmates and 86 staff within their institutions have tested positive. The Department of Corrections tells the Special Master that 117 inmates and 71 staff have tested positive. Five DOC inmates have died.
“We are mindful of the horrendous situation in Chicago,” the legislators continue. “The city’s Cook County Jail has emerged as one of the largest known sources of infection in the nation. This has ominous implications for Massachusetts, where 70% of the prisoners in Mass. DOC facilities eat and sleep within 6 feet of one another.”
Among specific actions recommended by the legislators, they ask Baker to instruct the Parole Board to shorten the processing time involved in releasing inmates already granted parole, to expedite hearings on other inmates who are eligible for parole, and to expedite the release of inmates in county houses of correction who are within 60 days of competing their minimum sentences.
“Whatever their original offenses, and whatever their original sentences, inmates throughout the Commonwealth are now in danger of suffering the ultimate penalty,” the letter concludes. “The correctional officers with whom they come into contact run the same drastic risk. For the sake of both communities, we respectfully ask that you take the steps we enumerate in this letter.”