Mass. jail outbreak leads to calls for expanded inmate testing

The total number of inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 now stands at 139, and 33 employees or vendors have also tested positive


By Julie Manganis
Gloucester Daily Times

MIDDLETON, Mass. — Two additional prisoners and two additional employees have tested positive for COVID-19 at Middleton Jail since a round of testing was completed at that facility, but officials say the outbreak has not spread to either of the county's other two facilities in Lawrence and Salisbury.

The total of inmates who tested positive for the virus now stands at 139, and 33 employees or vendors were found to have tested positive, the sheriff's department said in a release Wednesday afternoon.

The outbreak is leading to calls from the state's public defender agency to test all men and women in custody at each of the state's jails and prisons.

Tests were conducted Saturday and Sunday at the jail and on Tuesday at the Lawrence Pre-release and Re-entry Center ("The Farm") and the Salisbury Women in Transition program. No positive results were found at the Salisbury and Lawrence facilities, Sheriff Kevin Coppinger's office said.

A total of 1,690 tests were administered.

Officials have continued to stress that of those testing positive, 72% show no symptoms, and no one has been hospitalized as a result of the illness.

But while officials point to their efforts to identify and contain the spread, advocates for the prisoners are calling for testing of all prisoners in Massachusetts, saying the spike in cases at Middleton and another outbreak at the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center (MASAC) in Bridgewater show how rapidly the virus spreads in jails and prisons.

Anthony Benedetti, chief legal counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said the testing at many facilities has been "completely insufficient" to support the claims of some sheriffs as to the safety of their jails.

"At Middleton alone, there is a positivity rate around 15 percent, which shows just how fast this disease can rip through these facilities," said Benedetti.

"We are demanding that every incarcerated person in the commonwealth be tested for coronavirus, and we demand that this testing take place on a regular basis," Benedetti said. "We also need to cut down on the number of people being held. The pandemic is not over, and it is irresponsible and unconstitutional to take a business-as-usual approach to incarceration. Continuing on this course will put prisoners, staff, their families and the community at risk."

"When the Supreme Judicial Court initially ruled that some people should be released due to the pandemic we all agreed that, if the virus were to become widespread within correctional facilities, there would be real-and-present constitutional issues," said Benedetti. "That moment has arrived, and we will not stand idly by as this virus ravages our clients and rips away their constitutional protections."

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©2020 the Gloucester Daily Times (Gloucester, Mass.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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