Our Opinion: Prison release plan too broad in scope

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On Wednesday's editorial page, The Eagle expressed concern that Gov. Baker's plan to reopen the economy didn't take more of a regional approach. The same can be said of efforts to persuade the governor to release more inmates from prison in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Tuesday, several community groups, led by the Massachusetts Public Health Association, pressed the governor to adopt their 10-point plan to lower the prison population to make social distancing possible. Among the points are granting parole to qualifying prisoners within six months of their eligibility dates, withdrawing warrants for minor parole violations, and compelling hotels, motels and colleges to house newly released inmates. In April, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled that some prisoners, such as those awaiting trial or being held on certain parole or probation violations, could be released. The SJC also ordered regular reports on how the virus is impacting prisons.

According to the most recent report released Monday, 1,158 inmates had been released to comply with the order. The Prisoners Legal Service of Massachusetts released data that 501 Massachusetts prisoners and 286 correctional officials have contracted the virus since early April and seven prisoners have died.

The state Department of Public Health reports that more than 2,800 patients have been tested for the virus. The state's data also showed that the majority of confirmed cases were concentrated in a few facilities, primarily the Essex County jail and the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater. where five prisoners have died. This is in keeping with overall state DPH numbers in which the majority of cases are concentrated in the eastern end of the state.

In a May 1 oped column, Berkshire County Sheriff Tom Bowler made the case against these prisoner releases. ("Releasing inmates from virus-free jails poses risk to them, community") Following the SJC order, 27 prisoners were released from the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction, and within 24 hours two were re-arrested on new charges and two more were in the emergency room with drug overdoses.

Four staff members, including the sheriff himself, contracted the coronavirus in the early stages of its spread in the Berkshires and stayed home until they had recovered and were cleared by the state Department of Public Health. There have been no instances since. Mr. Bowler asserted that the jail is meeting all state and federal conditions for cleaning and sanitizing the facility. The prisoners have access to medical care on a 24-hour basis. With the jail well below its capacity, he said it is possible to maintain adequate social distancing.

The sheriff made the point that prisoners released prematurely are being pulled out of their rehabilitation programs, making it more likely that they will re-offend or fall back into drug abuse.This makes them a danger to the community and themselves.

We don't doubt the good intentions of the groups urging the prisoner release on Beacon Hill and in the courts. But the best approach is to focus on the prison "hot spots." The governor has instituted a strict sanitizing program at the prisons and the state is providing prisoners with masks. If problems continue to emerge at places like Bridgewater the state should find out why and institute further reforms.

However, if the coronavirus problem is under control at institutions like the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction it is counterproductive and potentially dangerous to impose "solutions" for a problem that doesn't exist at every facility. The governor should not approve the 10-point plan.



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