Mass. high court says jails' response to pandemic does not violate rights

The ACLU and state public defender agency had argued that sheriffs had failed to implement adequate inmate testing, among other precautions

By Julie Manganis
The Salem News
MIDDLETON, Mass. — The state's highest court has rejected a claim that sheriffs violated the due process rights of prisoners in county jails across Massachusetts during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a lengthy decision released Tuesday, the Supreme Judicial Court acknowledged the risks faced by pretrial detainees and people serving sentences as a result of COVID-19. But, under the circumstances, the responses of the 13 county sheriffs "objectively are not unreasonable" given efforts to mitigate those risks — "including offering a highly effective vaccine to all inmates and staff."

The two groups, the state public defender agency known as the Committee for Public Counsel Services and the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, had argued that the sheriffs failed to implement regular across-the-board COVID testing, and that they had not adequately followed an earlier court ruling that the sheriffs work to reduce the inmate population.

The court also rejected a claim that the sheriffs in Essex and Bristol counties are not offering adequate options for attorney-client meetings — citing the fact that both facilities continue to offer in-person, contact visits for attorneys and their jailed clients, as well as non-contact visits, telephone calls, unscreened legal mail, and that Essex also offers video conferencing.

The CPCS and ACLU had objected to Essex's videoconferencing option because it does not allow for more than two participants or for screensharing.

"These alternative avenues need not be perfect to pass constitutional muster," wrote Justice Elspeth Cypher, writing for the court. "Moreover, the risks of contact visitation have diminished considerably given the widespread availability of highly effective vaccines, not only to inmates and staff ... but to attorneys, interpreters and other individuals."

"COVID came with unprecedented challenges for facilities like ours and we knew we would not escape the clutches of this dangerously virulent illness, but we prepared the best we could to ensure the safety of all who work and live here," Sheriff Kevin Coppinger said in an email. "We listened to the experts. We adapted how we do business. We cleaned and sanitized 24 hours a day, seven days a week and we weathered the storm."

Coppinger pointed to the efforts to find alternative ways of arranging for attorney-client meetings, including introducing the videoconferencing and tablets for inmates.

He said he was proud of the work his staff had done.

CPCS was unable to respond to the decision on Tuesday, a spokesman said.

The SJC concluded that sheriffs had relied on a state Department of Public Health epidemiologist in developing its testing strategy. The plan ultimately did not include regular screening for COVID, only testing for symptomatic prisoners and anyone in close contact.

(c)2021 The Salem News (Beverly, Mass.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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