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State needs to release prisoners

Published: 5/5/2020 4:20:26 PM

On April 19th, the NBC affiliate in Columbus, Ohio reported that 1,828 out of 2,500 prisoners in the state prison in Marion tested positive for the coronavirus along with 109 staff members. As of April 17, 180 Massachusetts prisoners have tested positive and five prisoners have died.

Do not delude yourself, the reason that number is “low” compared to Marion is not because Massachusetts is doing the right thing. It is because incarcerated people are tested only if they are symptomatic, and then not always.

On April 17, Prisoners’ Legal Services filed a class action suit requesting that the Supreme Judicial Court order Gov. Charlie Baker, Department of Correction Commissioner Carol Mici and Parole Board Chairperson Gloriann Maroney take immediate action to release prisoners and ensure that no prison or jail can hold people in conditions where they must eat, sleep, or recreate within 6 feet of another person.

In response to lawsuits and hundreds of letters and calls, the governor flatly said he has no intention of releasing even the most vulnerable of people. He said, “We believe the correct position is for us to be continue doing the things we’re doing to keep the people inside safe, and that’s gonna be the way we play this one.”

The Parole Board admitted “it has made no efforts to accelerate the scheduling of parole hearings.” The fiction propagated by sheriffs and the Department of Correction is that it is possible to maintain 6 feet of distance despite being double bunked in a cell the size of a parking space or that people can be protected by sleeping head to toe in “dorms” where as many as 80 people spend 23½ hours a day.

Loved ones of incarcerated people and advocates are sounding the alarm. We are demanding that the governor, the parole board and district attorneys respond to this humanitarian emergency with emergency action by releasing people now. Otherwise thousands of people could needlessly suffer and many will die.

When this happens, the governor and others who could have acted will not be able to claim they did not know.

Lois Ahrens


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

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