Massachusetts prisons and jails hold among the highest percentage of elderly and medically vulnerable prisoners in the nation, yet very few have been released on medical parole. Executive Director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, Elizabeth Matos, joined us remotely to talk about what her clients are experiencing behind bars in many Massachusetts prisons during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Founded in 1972, Prisoners’ Legal Services promotes the safe, humane and lawful treatment of Massachusetts’ prisoners through civil rights litigation, administrative advocacy, client counseling, and outreach.

Here are some highlights from the conversation.

Why Prisoners’ Legal Services was established after the Attica Prison Riot:

PLS was formed after the 1971 Attica Prison Riot, a shocking uprising when inmates in a New York prison protested inhumane prison conditions and launched the modern prisoner rights’ movement. “Sadly decades later, we're still dealing with many of the same conditions that were prevalent at that time,” Matos explained. “There have been some improvements over the years, but this is a population that is still largely dehumanized and forgotten about. We're hoping that people understand that these are human beings that we have locked up in cages. And regardless of what they're convicted for, we're not doing anybody any good by continuing to do things this way.”

How COVID has exacerbated the public health challenges in prisons:

Massachusetts has the highest percentage of elderly prisoners in the country, and the prison population has a disproportionate number of people with chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease. Matos noted that 55 is considered geriatric in prison because the lack of nutrition, exercise and fresh air can age someone so quickly: “We have clients who are in their forties who look like they're in their seventies.”

PLS is advocating for medically vulnerable and elderly people to be released from state prisons during the pandemic. “I think it’s worth noting that this population — elderly and medically vulnerable — are statistically the least likely to reoffend in the system,” Matos said. “Despite that fact, and the fact that many have already served decades of their sentence, we still have not made significant efforts in the state prison system.”

How the prison phone industry hurts family members of the incarcerated:

Family members often bear the financial brunt of the costs of incarceration, especially when it comes to phone calls, which are controlled nationally by just two corporations. “It's a monopoly, essentially, and they charge exorbitant phone rates to families who want to connect with their loved ones inside,” Matos said. “It's cost-prohibitive for many of these families, the same families who are struggling with unemployment or who are disproportionately affected by COVID.”

This hurts many children who have parents inside, according to Matos. “We have clients who help their children with math homework over the phone, and who read to them over the phone. It’s a way for them to establish and maintain those relationships.” Matos pointed to the evidence which shows that connections to family members while incarcerated is directly related to positive re-entry and lower recidivism rates.

How online trials during COVID are hurting vulnerable prisoners:

During the pandemic, many trials have moved online, meaning people inside prisons rely on technology that is unreliable and prone to breaking. Matos said that distance trials take away the opportunity for a judge to see a person as a full human being while being sentenced. “It's really important sometimes to have them [the person charged] in the courtroom, where the judge and others can see and hear them, and see their mannerisms,” Matos explained. “They [the judges and attorneys] understand that this person isn't a ‘monster’ — this isn't someone who fits the stereotypical imagery that people have of someone who's incarcerated, which is, quite frankly, racist imagery.”

How the prison system’s handling of COVID reflects larger inequities in the state:

Matos said that even in a liberal state like Massachusetts, COVID is highlighting racial and social inequities that are not being addressed. “Massachusetts has traditionally been a ‘tough on crime’ state. The criminal justice reform movement certainly was very significant, but it was a major battle,” Matos explained. “It’s shifting nationally, but Massachusetts still has a ton of work to do. And I think that is evident in the debates that we're seeing now on policing and police reform — the state is not quite ready to reckon with the fact racial inequities exist in our criminal legal system and that they perpetuate racial inequities here in Massachusetts.”

Matos pointed out that 96% of the people who are incarcerated get released back to society at some point: “That’s another reason why we should care about the conditions inside — because of course, it impacts all of us.”

Ripple Effect is an ongoing video series looking at the varying levels of impact COVID-19 has had across our region. View more in the series here.