SJC returns decarceration case to Superior Court

Boston Statehouse
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BOSTON (SHNS) – The state’s highest court flagged concerns Tuesday that lockdown conditions at many Massachusetts correctional facilities are at risk of creating constitutional violations, but declined to decide immediately whether more inmates should be released during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a lengthy opinion, the Supreme Judicial Court denied a motion filed by inmates and advocacy groups for a preliminary injunction that would have forced the state Department of Correction to reduce prison and jail populations to a level where social distancing is possible.

The SJC sent the case back to the Superior Court to allow it to continue on an emergency basis, so Tuesday’s ruling does not end the legal dispute.

Justice Frank Gaziano wrote that the DOC has made “significant efforts” to reduce COVID risks for incarcerated inmates. But with the pandemic ongoing, he and other justices warned that restrictions on activities and visitations aimed at limiting the spread of the virus could soon teeter into unconstitutional territory.

“As the commissioner’s counsel acknowledged at oral argument, while the pandemic continues, the lockdown conditions instituted by the DOC to prevent a serious risk of harm themselves risk becoming Eighth Amendment violations,” Gaziano wrote. “The CDC’s interim guidance notes that measures taken by correction facilities to reduce transmission of COVID-19, such as canceling activities and visitation, may be deleterious to the mental health of inmates.”

The second part of the ruling also dismissed Gov. Charlie Baker as a party in the case, while keeping the state Parole Board involved.

“The administration is pleased that today’s decision appropriately reflects the unprecedented steps that Massachusetts’ criminal justice agencies have taken to support the health and safety of the people in our care, our vendors, and staff, and we remain committed to adopting effective strategies that protect the public at large while safely managing our facilities,” Jake Wark, a spokesman for the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, said in a statement.

Prisons have been a focal point of COVID-19 concerns amid the outbreak given the proximity of inmates.

As of Tuesday, 609 inmates and 347 staff members across state correctional facilities and county jails had tested positive for the virus, while eight prisoners have died, according to data compiled by the Prisoners’ Legal Services group.

PLS filed the lawsuit, on behalf of inmates, that prompted Tuesday’s decision, and other organizations have also launched legal action seeking significant “decarceration” in Massachusetts.

Almost 1,600 inmates have been released from state and county facilities under steps outlined in April by the SJC, including pre-trial detainees.

PLS Executive Director Elizabeth Matos said in a press release that she was “disappointed” with Tuesday’s SJC ruling.

“Over 600 incarcerated people in our state are COVID positive right now and those rising numbers are despite inadequate testing,” Matos said, referring both to those in DOC and county jail custody. “Our clients in the DOC have been enduring eight straight weeks of solitary confinement conditions and have only recently been allowed to get a few minutes a week of fresh air. In addition to a public health crisis, there is a serious mental health crisis in our prisons and jails.”

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