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COVID-19 claims life at Devens prison, staff members test positive

On May 4 the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced that an inmate at the Federal Medical Center in Devens (FMC Devens) had died of complications from COVID-19. The inmate was a 76-year-old man from New Jersey. On May 11, the bureau reported that one staff member at the facility, which is located within the historical boundaries of Harvard, had tested positive for COVID-19. Two days later, another staff member and an inmate tested positive.

The inmate who died was suffering from renal cancer and was sent to an area hospital for a radical nephrectomy on April 7. He returned to the prison three days later and was placed in quarantine. On April 22 he developed a fever and was sent back to the hospital. He tested positive for COVID-19 and was returned to the prison the following day. He was placed in hospice care in the skilled nursing unit where he died May 4.

The Federal Medical Center in Devens opened in 1998 following the closure of Fort Devens. It is operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and currently houses 1,004 male inmates, many of whom require specialized medical care. Because of the frailty of many inmates there, FMC Devens has recently come under fire for not following U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s April 3 memo directing prisons to identify inmates with COVID-19 risk factors and consider releasing them to home confinement.

According to its website, the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union partnered with law firm Fick & Marx, LLP, to bring a federal class action suit against FMC Devens on April 14. The suit asked that a federal judge “immediately release a sufficient number of incarcerated men who are medically vulnerable and appropriate candidates for compassionate release or home confinement to ensure that the remaining incarcerated people and staff can comply with CDC guidelines for physical distancing.” The suit also requests a court-appointed medical expert to “investigate the conditions at FMC Devens and monitor compliance.”

Taking precautions

The Federal Bureau of Prisons website says that the bureau is taking precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in all its prisons. The list of precautions for inmates includes checking inmate temperatures at least once a day, isolating and testing symptomatic inmates, and quarantining any new arrivals if they have a risk of COVID-19 exposure. According to the website, all staff and inmates have been issued cloth masks, and staff working in a quarantine or isolation unit are required to wear masks, gowns, and gloves. For employees, the precaution list includes screening when reporting to work, self-monitoring for symptoms, practicing social distancing, and disinfecting and cleaning workspaces. Any staff member who has been exposed to COVID-19 must wear a mask for 14 days, and any staff member who develops symptoms of illness is sent home.

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