The Hidden Exception to Mandatory Distancing

How Tufts Can Help Incarcerated People

In a time of crisis, it is inspiring that Tufts has taken a leading role in housing healthcare providers and patients battling the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 18th, days after Tufts students were forced to evacuate from campus, President Monaco wrote a Boston Globe op-ed calling for other colleges and universities to do the same. This came to fruition when first responders, medical personnel, and patients began arriving on the Medford/Somerville campus in late April. Hillside Apartments currently houses Cambridge Health Alliance medical personnel and Miller Hall houses Cambridge Health Alliance patients who are COVID-19 positive but do not require critical care. Community Housing (CoHo) houses first responders from the City of Somerville and Bush Hall houses Tufts employees. Current students who are living on-campus are downhill and students who are traveling back to Tufts are required to self-quarantine in Sophia Gordon Hall for two weeks before moving to Harleston Hall. 

While Tufts may have a plan for patients and healthcare providers, others are left without guarantee of stability. The virus poses a severe threat all over the world, but one population, particularly in the United States, is often overlooked: incarcerated individuals. With unsanitary conditions, overcrowding, and a lack of healthcare resources, America’s prisons and jails are dangerously susceptible to an unmanageable and lethal spread. 

The severity of this issue is demonstrated by one notoriously dangerous facility—the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City. According to a study from the Legal Aid Society, Rikers’ infection rate is eight times larger than the entire city. In an article from The Marshall Project, they found “there were 51 or 52 men in the dorm on any given day” but also a lack of soap, toilet paper, and other basic products for these individuals. Given the dire circumstances inside prisons, a key solution to protect incarcerated people is reducing the prison population. Various states are releasing numerous people in an effort to prevent the spread. California is releasing 3,500 people who have committed nonviolent crimes or are already close to their release date and New York City has already released 900 people. Massachusetts needs to follow suit.

In response to an emergency petition, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that people held on pretrial who have committed nonviolent crimes are entitled to an expedited release process, but the Massachusetts government is not acting fast enough. Governor Charlie Baker has maintained the position that there is enough testing in prisons. However, the number of incarcerated people in Massachusetts contracting the virus continues to increase. In mid-April, Prisoners’ Legal Services reported that 180 incarcerated people tested positive for the virus; a month later on May 20, this number increased to 534. 

One main problem is that in order to be released, incarcerated people must have stable housing lined up. Recognizing the increasing number of COVID-19 cases and the great need of support on the outside, two undergraduate leaders of Tufts University Prison Initiative at Tisch College (TUPIT) took action. TUPIT is a program bringing Tufts faculty and students and incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people together with corrections staff, educators, and scholars of criminal justice to respond to the issues of mass incarceration. Nora Maetzener, a senior, and Claudia Guetta, a sophomore, have been heavily involved in this work since they arrived at Tufts. They reached out to Tufts Medical School students Megan Murphy and Saki Kitadai to make this action a cross-campus effort and started a petition requesting President Monaco to extend a hand to incarcerated individuals. They saw people were being released and had nowhere to go due to the pandemic and advocated for  Tufts to make use of its empty space. Murphy and Kitadai already had experience writing petitions and letters during the push to remove the Sackler name from Tufts Medical School. 

Maetzener and Guetta say the reason they are only asking for certain populations to be housed is because the Department of Correction has said they would not release someone who was not ready for re-entry, and realistically, Tufts does not have enough room to house all incarcerated people because of their promise to house medical personnel and COVID-19 patients. The petition urges a portion of vacant student housing to be allocated to incarcerated individuals, who are either finishing their sentences or being offered early release due to medical “vulnerabilities” during the COVID-19 outbreak, but who are unable to be released due to the closure of and inadequate access to re-entry housing. Studies show these populations who are ready for re-entry are less likely to go back to prison when released. 

In only a few days, the petition garnered over 473 signatures from students across Tufts’s campuses. President Monaco did not respond to the petition, but the students received a response from Rocco DiRico, Director of Community Relations. According to Patrick Collins, the Executive Director of Public Relations, “The university is only able to make housing available in the context of an institutional partnership with a governmental or nonprofit organization which can commit to providing all care and support, including medical care, food delivery, waste removal, cleaning, security and other needs, as is the case with our hospital and city partners. To date, [Tufts] has not received a proposal from a nonprofit organization or a government agency seeking to house formerly incarcerated individuals on campus.” The TUPIT undergraduate students are in conversation with organizations willing to do this, but have no concrete answers on when this is likely to happen, if at all. 

On a broader scale, the mere existence of prisons has come into question due to the pandemic. People across the political spectrum are advocating for the release of low-risk prisoners and even alternatives to prison. Fifty-six percent of voters, including those who identify as “very conservative,” support releasing people who are within six months of completing their sentence. These Tufts undergraduates are not shying away from stating that they believe the same. Maetzener personally believes in prison abolition regardless of the pandemic, saying she does not believe in prison as an institution but recognizes that “when working with institutional politics and regulations, you have to find a medium.”  

While students at other universities may be conversing about providing support to formerly incarcerated people during the pandemic, the Tufts student body was the first to publicly take action. TUPIT passed on this work to other Boston-area universities. Guetta said they reached out to help Harvard, Boston University, and Boston College students who aim to take similar measures at their respective universities. On May 11, the Boston University Coalition for Decarceration circulated a petition similar to TUPIT’s, calling on the BU  administration to utilize empty dormitories to house people recently released from prisons. 

Furthermore, TUPIT has taken on additional projects to support incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people during this time. Fifty TUPIT members have been working on building the Tufts Education Reentry Network (TERN). A third of these members are formerly incarcerated individuals; these Educational Justice Fellows receive a stipend to spearhead the network-building process. Network programs include financial literacy, professionalization, and computer coding workshops as well as opportunities for mentorship, an internship, and a literature course. In terms of TUPIT’s Associate’s Degree program at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord, Tufts professors teaching courses set up contingency plans a week before the prison closed to outside visitors (aside from lawyers). They encouraged students to work together if they are able to congregate; they also instructed them on how to complete their assignments independently. For a period of time, professors were able to drop off assignments outside of the prison and then pick them up later when students completed the assignments. However, it was not long before they were no longer able to do this. Plans for the fall semester are currently undetermined. 

After creating the petition, the organizers received messages of support and communication from students who wanted to know how they can help. Maetzener and Guetta, along with Murphy and Kitadai at the medical school, have created a student coalition group for prison advocacy. They hope to form an intercollegiate student coalition of correctional housing advocates, with representatives from schools and programs across the greater Boston area. This student coalition will use one central line of communication to update one another on progress within schools and even put pressure on state-level elected officials. Additionally, Maetzener, Guetta, the Educational Justice fellows, and many Tufts community members continue to develop TERN. Guetta said, “We are trying to create a re-entry program that bridges the difference between when you are still incarcerated inside and when you are out.”