Testimony on H.4652, An Act regarding decarceration and COVID-19
Dear Chairs Cronin and Eldridge,
Thank you for the opportunity to weigh in on H.4652. Having the privilege of representing much of the City of Framingham where the women’s prison MCI-Framingham is located, I hear regularly from families, advocates, correctional officers, and concerned community members, many of whom run programming at the site. I have the great privilege and responsibility of hearing their stories and ensuring they are all treated fairly and humanely. I also have the privilege of speaking regularly with Commissioner Mici about the state of affairs at MCI-Framingham.
First, I want to applaud the work of Sheriff Koutoujian and District Attorney Ryan of Middlesex County who have worked hard to reduce the overall population at the co-located South Middlesex Correctional Center where pre-trial detainees are housed. I regularly hear that fewer than 25 and often even fewer than 20 women are being detained there, allowing for careful social distancing.
However, my understanding is that conditions in MCI-Framingham have been deteriorating since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, as evidenced by the large number of infected inmates. Difficult decisions such as ending programming and visits, removing congregate dining, and keeping inmates in their rooms make sense from a social distancing perspective, though these changes reduce the already limited human contact for prisoners. The Commissioner has allowed for free phone calls and emails, but my understanding is that they are not free but reimbursable, meaning those people without any money in their accounts do not have access to email or phone. It is especially concerning that both staff and prisoners have been refusing testing, something that is necessary to understand the spread. At MCI-Framingham, I know there are three units kept for different levels of COVID-19 infection, but that does not account for appropriate social distancing in the “healthy/cleared/negative” unit. With shared bathing facilities, not unlike a dormitory (where we saw every university and college across the Commonwealth send their students home), and lack of access to face covering, spread is inevitable. We have heard there has been at least one death in MCI-Framingham since the beginning of March, but we have not heard the cause of death or if the deceased was tested for or tested positive from COVID-19.
While there are plenty of small step reactive measures that can be taken to slow the spread, H.4652 treats the issue appropriately with proactive steps that protect both inmates and correctional officers as well as the larger community. Much like with our other congregate care facilities, we are behind on responding to the spread of coronavirus, but this bill will significantly reduce the population within the prison, allowing for appropriate social distancing, while giving those nearing the end of their terms or imprisoned for minor sentences the opportunity to avoid infection and potential hospitalization or death. I believe all members of the committee can agree that incarceration should not mean death or even significant long-term health issues.
I have heard the argument that nursing homes, where some inmates that are eligible for medical parole would be allowed to house, are no safer than prisons. I would stress that nursing homes are a much safer location, with significantly better required reporting, lack of mental stress of being incarcerated which impacts physical health, and access to properly cleaning supplies and social distancing.
I ask the committee to swiftly take up and pass H.4652 out of committee and have the support of my community behind me in this request. Please do not hesitate to reach out with questions or further requests for information.
Maria D. Robinson
6th Middlesex District