Massachusetts correctional facilities are taking extra steps to keep inmates and staff healthy inside as the novel coronavirus spreads outside.
The state Department of Correction suspended visits this week from family and friends of inmates housed at its 16 prisons, and some county jails are following suit.
To date, there have been no cases of COVID-19 — the disease caused by the new virus — reported among the state’s inmate population.
Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian and his staff are working to keep it that way.
“We can handle this,” Koutoujian told NBC10 Boston’s Ally Donnelly this week. “We can manage this. We are prepared for this.”
Koutoujian and his staff demonstrated new enhanced screening procedures being used at the Middlesex Jail & House of Correction, which houses some 900 inmates at any given time. Most are awaiting trial, or serving sentences of up to two-and-a-half years.
Kathleen Shultz, who directs health services at the jail, said nurses already examine inmates when they arrive at the facility and when they return from court. But those screenings now include questions about symptoms of the coronavirus, such as fever, cough and shortness of breath.
Inmates who show warning signs are placed in medical isolation while the sheriff’s office consults with medical professionals and the state Department of Public Health about whether further testing is necessary.
The jail is also taking other measures to limit the potential for the virus to spread, such as cleaning common areas and transport vans more frequently, instituting more videoconferencing for court hearings and encouraging the more than 500 staff members in the sheriff’s office to stay home if they’re sick.
New posters promoting good hygiene in multiple languages are also on display around the facility.
Koutoujian said he also hopes to offer inmates the ability to chat with family and friends via video, maintaining an important outlet for prisoners to keep in contact with the outside world.
Deadly riots broke out in Italian prisons after the country suspended family visits last week. In Massachusetts, the Department of Correction has also temporarily banned all visitors, with the exception of attorneys. Officials in Middlesex and Suffolk counties implemented similar policies late this week.
Koutoujian said clear communication to inmates about the policy is key.
“They’re the lifelines for the inmates in this facility.”
Prisoner advocate Lizz Matos says hundreds of people move through correctional facilities in Massachusetts every day. And the state has one of the highest populations of elderly inmates -- a group most at risk from coronavirus.
Matos worries that inmates at some facilities lack ready access to soap and hand sanitizer, which is typically banned because it contains alcohol.
“I’m fearful for my clients … because I know how ill some of them are, and I worry many of them could die,” she said.
Matos is executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services, which is calling on the state’s criminal justice system to find more ways to keep suspects charged with low-level crimes out of corrections facilities during the pandemic. Matos is also pushing for prosecutors and judges to consider releasing inmates where possible.
Several agencies are considering options to avoid bringing more people into jails while the virus spreads. In Suffolk County, District Attorney Rachel Rollins announced this week that all prosecutors in her office will request a 60-day continuance in cases in which the suspect is not in custody.
Rollins also delayed empaneling a special grand jury for 30 days, and instructed her staff to consider eliminating or rescheduling pre-trial hearings for inmates who are already in custody to avoid transporting them to court.
“Every individual, business, and public agency has a duty to help flatten the curve of this pandemic’s growth,” Rollins said in an announcement. “Criminal justice agencies are no exception.”
Koutoujian told NBC10 that Middlesex County is loosening its ban on sanitizer in light of the coronavirus pandemic, and has enough protective equipment and other supplies stockpiled to last several weeks.
Asked what he needs from state and federal health officials, Koutoujian said he’s seeking clearer direction and contingency plans.
“We have to know what they would recommend should this become a much more significant outbreak,” he said. “We would need access to supplies. We have access to supplies right now, but we will need more supplies, and I would say we need access to testing.”