At the beginning of 2021, Lizette Nevarez was nearing the end of her 10-year criminal sentence. She had just four months left before going home.

Then, she got COVID-19.

“It’s been horrible. It’s been hard mentally on me and the other women in here,” Nevarez said, speaking by phone from South Middlesex Correctional Center (SMCC) in Framingham, Mass., where she had been in pre-release for the last two years. She served seven years before that at Massachusetts Correctional Institution – Framingham.

As has happened since the start of the pandemic in prisons across the country, a COVID-19 outbreak hit SMCC at the end of January. In total, Nevarez and 11 other women at the facility — almost half of the population in the minimum security unit at SMCC — eventually tested positive for the disease.

Nevarez, 60, has several pre-existing medical conditions, including diabetes and asthma. She is still experiencing painful symptoms.

“I still feel like I have glass in my chest," she said. "I still get headaches every day. It doesn’t go away.”

And there are other challenges. After the outbreak at SMCC, the Department of Correction announced that the facility, which had only been operating at about 10% capacity, would close temporarily and the women incarcerated there would be moved to county jails across the state that can better support their rehabilitation. Last week, Nevarez was transferred to a men’s jail in Billerica — just three months before her release.

As Nevarez recovers from COVID-19, she said the transfer is a confusing move at the end of a difficult year of isolation and uncertainty, when many women like her think home confinement would be the safest option. She is worried about getting sick again from new strains of the virus and about adjusting to a new facility that does not have experience with women. She said the unrest has taken a toll on her and other women’s mental health.

“I don't want to get sick. I'm so scared,” Nevarez said. “I don't want to die here.”

Advocates for incarcerated people said that transfers like the one from SMCC contradict public health guidelines and could lead to further COVID outbreaks in prisons. Instead, they argued that the DOC should put more effort into releasing people like Nevarez — those who are medically vulnerable and at the end of their sentence in a minimum security unit — to home confinement.

State lawmakers agree with that assessment. In December, the state legislature passed a budget that included an amendment stipulating that the DOC “shall release, transition to home confinement or furlough individuals” inside prisons to stop the spread of the virus. Advocates said that, despite the clarity of the law, the DOC is not doing enough to ensure early release of vulnerable prisoners and that the women in pre-release at SMCC should have fallen under that statute.

In December, Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts filed a motion urging the DOC to be more proactive in releasing prisoners to stop the virus and noted that at the time, the DOC had not released any prisoners to home confinement. According to PLS, as of January there were 262 people in minimum security units and 298 people in pre-release prisons in the state.

Jason Dobson, a spokesperson for the DOC, said in a statement that the DOC launched an Electronic Monitoring Program last month and that as of the beginning of March, there are seven prisoners in the program, including five from SMCC. He said the DOC “will continue to review potential eligible candidates” for the program.

Dobson said in a statement last week that the women at SMCC were being transferred to facilities that “provide them with an environment more conducive to their rehabilitation.” Once Nevarez is transferred to Billerica, he said that she and the other women would be in their own separate minimum security unit with a focus on rehabilitation.

“The sheriffs of these counties have experience in community-based reentry programs, transitional housing and related services, all of which will promote the successful reentry of these women into their communities," Dobson said, adding that the women would be given orientations to their new facilities and that they would be tested for COVID-19 before being transferred.

On Feb. 26, a group of 32 state representatives and senators, organized by Rep. Jack Lewis, Democrat of Framingham,sent a letter to DOC Commissioner Carol Mici saying that they believed the women from SMCC met the criteria for release under the budget statute. "This plan to transfer women is a misuse of DOC power and resources, risks exacerbating a public health emergency and does not comply with the General Court’s mandate," the letter read.

The letter noted that several people at the Billerica jail to which Nevarez was transferred tested positive for COVID-19 last month. On Feb. 13, the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office announced two positive COVID-19 cases at the Billerica facility.

In an attempt to stop the spread of the virus, many prisons across the country have gone into lockdowns, in effect cutting off many prisoners' connections to the outside world. Massachusetts suspended family visits for prisoners at the beginning of the pandemic then loosened restrictions over the summer before suspending visits again in November.

The lawsuit filed by Prisoners’ Legal Services in December included reports that prisoners in Massachusetts had restricted access to mental health counselors and group therapy, outdoor recreation and educational programs, along with limited time for phone calls. It also said that sick-call requests had gone unanswered during the pandemic. Many of those programs are hallmarks of pre-release and minimum security facilities, which aim to prepare prisoners for release.

Leslie Credle, executive director of Justice 4 Housing, an organization that has offered to support the women at SMCC if they are released, has talked to women inside prisons across the country, including Nevarez. Credle, who us also formerly incarcerated, said that the pandemic has taken a toll on women's mental and physical health.

“My sisters inside, that I did time with, who are strong women and never had a mental health problem, never suicidal, have done 10 years, 15 years,” she said. “Their mental health right now, it's scary. They're calling me, they’re crying. They're like, ‘Y'all, I never even thought about killing myself, but I do now.’ And it's so hard to hear them like that.”

Jesse White, a staff attorney at Prisoners’ Legal Services, says transferring prisoners who have already gone through the trauma of experiencing a pandemic while incarcerated — and, in some cases, becoming sick with COVID-19 — hurts an already vulnerable group of women.

“With this particular population, they’ve gone through this traumatic experience of living through a really serious outbreak, and this is a population that’s already likely been exposed to lots of trauma prior to incarceration, during incarceration,” White said. “Now, instead of finding ways to get to stable home environments, they’re actually being destabilized.”

Aninvestigation from The Marshall Project and the Associated Press found that COVID-19 outbreaks often follow prison transfers. The study pointed to an example in Oklahoma, where several facilities were closed because of budget cuts. After transferring 4,500 prisoners over the summer, an outbreak resulted in 6,600 positive COVID-19 cases among prisoners and 37 deaths.

In California, a February report from the state’s Office of the Inspector General linked a transfer of 189 medically vulnerable prisoners to a COVID-19 outbreak at San Quentin State Prison, resulting in the death of 28 prisoners and a correctional officer. The report claimed that the transfers created a “public health disaster.”

Nevarez’s lawyer, Jim McKenna, said that she fits the bill for a person who should be released under the budget statute because she is at the very end of her sentence and in a pre-release facility, meaning she has already been deemed not to pose a security threat. This month, he filed a petition in Middlesex Superior Court for her release.

Nevarez was convicted in 2014 of unarmed robbery of a person over 60, larceny and assault.

In May 2020, a judge denied Nevarez’s request for home confinement. But the decision found that Nevarez had “used her time in prison to transform her life," adding, "she will leave prison more capable of leading a successful and crime-free life.”

According to McKenna, the judge's findings should give even more urgency to Nevarez's early release now, given her medical vulnerabilities. In the February petition, he wrote: “Should Ms. Nevarez suffer another bout of COVID-19, whether with the original strain or one of the variants, her chances of surviving are dim.”

McKenna is optimistic that this new petition will be successful, though Nevarez had already been denied a request for home confinement earlier in the pandemic. He expects a hearing at for Nevarez’s case at the end of March.

This article has been updated to reflect a change in the number of prisoners in the DOC's Electronic Monitoring Program.