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State prison in Shirley sees fewer coronavirus cases

Corrections facilities stay constant with testing inmates and staff

(Shirley, MA 04/19/17) The Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center where Aaron Hernandez committed suicide. Wednesday, April 19, 2017. Staff photo by John Wilcox.
(Shirley, MA 04/19/17) The Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center where Aaron Hernandez committed suicide. Wednesday, April 19, 2017. Staff photo by John Wilcox.

SHIRLEY – The state Department of Correction medium-security prison on Harvard Road had a huge surge and then a big drop in coronavirus cases within the last week.

As of Wednesday, MCI-Shirley’s medium-security facility had reported 21 cases of coronavirus among its inmate population. This is a major decrease from the numbers reported on Nov. 25, when the DOC noted 142 active cases of coronavirus in its inmate population, earning the facility the distinction of the DOC facility with the most cases.

Other prisons saw changes in their coronavirus case data over the last week. Ninety-six coronavirus cases were reported among MCI-Concord’s inmate population on Nov. 25, but the new data released Dec. 2 showed another big drop to 20 active cases.

Two prisons did see an increase in cases among inmates, the largest being the facility in Gardner, with 59 active coronavirus cases noted as of Dec. 2 compared to the one lone case recorded on Nov. 25. MCI-Norfolk’s inmate population also saw an increase in cases, with 26 positive cases reported on Nov. 25 and 38 positive cases recorded as of Dec. 2.

LANCASTER, MA. – JANUARY 10: A Corrections Officer stationed at the entrance to the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center waves an employee through the checkpoint on January 10, 2020 in Lancaster, Massachusetts. (Photo By Mary Schwalm/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

The DOC added that eight inmates inside the DOC’s prison system have died from coronavirus, including three in Shirley.

Corrections officers have also been impacted. As of Tuesday, MCI-Concord had 37 confirmed cases of coronavirus among its corrections officers. MCI-Shirley also has 28 corrections officers that have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Shirley’s other prison, the maximum-security Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, had seven officers that have tested positive for the coronavirus. Meanwhile, MCI-Norfolk has 14 corrections officers that have tested positive for the virus.

The department has administered over 17,500 COVID-19 tests for inmates housed in the DOC’s 16 facilities, which house about 6,700 people in total. To keep up with any change in conditions, the department is providing mobile testing for inmates, patients, and staff. Daily testing is also ongoing to find any symptomatic inmates and those in close contact with them.

Some state officials are also keeping a close eye on cases behind bars. Sen. Jamie Eldridge has stressed concerns about conditions inside local prisons before, previously referring to Souza-Baranowski as “one of the most dangerous prisons in the commonwealth.”

Speaking over the phone late last month, Eldridge said he had a conference call with other legislators last week expressing frustration with the Baker/Polito administration’s lack of implementing public health measures inside state prisons as much as it has in other areas of state life.

The senator from Acton, whose district includes Shirley, has gotten reports that some inmates that’ve tested positive for coronavirus still mingle with the rest of the inmate population and that some prison staffers haven’t seen their facilities implement universal testing.

“We all know that if you limit social contact, you limit the spread,” Eldridge added. “There are a large number of correction officers and prison staff living in the Nashoba Valley so if they catch the virus and then come home, that can widen the spread.”

According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s weekly public health report issued on Nov. 27, Shirley was deemed to be in the higher risk, or red, of transmitting the virus with a cumulative total of 423 cases since the start of the pandemic. Concord, on the other hand, is still in the yellow zone with a cumulative total of 337 cases since the start of the pandemic.

When asked how Shirley managed to get in the red zone, Eldridge attributed that to both the lack of care at correctional facilities and how many of the town’s residents are working in the general public then coming home to smaller living spaces, making it more likely that the virus will spread.

“There’s a clear difference between what the administration is saying they’re doing and what’s actually getting done,” Eldridge added. “I just hope we have a much more robust response from the government.”