COVID-19 cases among incarcerated people at a state prison in Worcester County have spiked and one person has died, the state Department of Correction has confirmed.
Twelve people in state prisons have died of COVID-19 related illness since the start of the pandemic, the spokesperson said.
Cases of the virus at North Central Correctional Institution, more commonly known as Gardner, have more than tripled in the past week and are more than double any other state prison, according to DOC figures.
There are now 142 active cases among incarcerated people at Gardner and 53 cases at Old Colony Correctional Center, the prison with the second highest number of infected imprisoned people.
An attorney with a client at Gardner believes the Department of Correction is being deceptive about the number of COVID-19 positive cases within the facility.
Attorney Margo Nash said one of her clients approached a nurse at the facility to report losing his taste and smell four days before he was tested. That result was positive for COVID-19 on Dec. 18, but it was weeks before the case was publicly reported by the DOC, Nash said.
A spokesperson for the DOC said rapid test positivity is not publicly reported. Instead, the department relies on the more extensive PCR test, and reports those numbers.
Nash finds fault with that practice.
“I think that's disingenuous because you can't consider someone negative who was initially tested positive with a rapid test which are being used everywhere,” Nash said.
Capacity at Gardner has had prison advocates fearful for months that COVID-19 cases there would spread quickly once inside, they told GBH News.
Gardner’s “design capacity,” defined as the number of incarcerated people planners intended for an institution, is the highest of any DOC facility, according to American Civil Liberties Union attorney Jessie Rossman.
Garder was at 162 percent design capacity, according to a DOC report released in the second quarter of 2020.
"It's a unique, vulnerable setting because there are so many people in dormitory settings there and there isn't a lot of room to change that,” said Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services.
Saying it would allow for more social distancing inside prisons, advocates have been pushing for the state to release incarcerated peoples from the prison population.
“The issue here is that people are dying as a result of failure to act,” Matos said. “And masks and hand sanitizer, just like what we're seeing in our own communities, is not enough to keep people safe.”
A spokesperson for the DOC declined to confirm the name of the incarcerated person held at Gardner who died but said the man was in his late 60s and died Monday at an “outside hospital,” after being admitted there Dec. 25.
This story has been updated to include a comment from attorney Margo Nash.