Governor Charlie Baker last week issued an emergency order banning gatherings larger than 25 people in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19 across Massachusetts. But what does social distancing look like in prisons and jails, where incarcerated people often live with multiple people to one cell, and corrections officers are essential to maintain orderly operations?
Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, president of both the Massachusetts Sheriffs' Association and the Major County Sheriffs of America, told Boston Public Radio Monday that the state Department of Correction is doing what it can to keep the new coronavirus out of its 16 prisons by suspending visits, limiting programming, and stepping up precautions for its essential personnel of corrections officers.
To date, there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 among the state's incarcerated population.
"People on the outside don't understand it's not just a public health matter, it's a public safety matter," said Koutoujian. "Taking visitation away is not something you do lightly ... internally, when you close down visitation, you're closing down a lifeline for individuals here, it's the one thing that keeps them happy and motivated and calm."
While the federal response to COVID-19 has been disconcerting, Koutoujian said there has been constant and continual discussion with law enforcement across the state.
In an effort to abide by public health officials' recommendations for social distancing, Koutoujian said he is actively looking into revisiting bail decisions for some inmates, and checking in on the population of incarcerated people who have chronic illnesses, to see who he might be able to place out on house arrest with a monitoring bracelet to create more space in state facilities.