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Bristol County Groups Call for Release of Inmates to Cut COVID-19 Risk in Jail

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Several Bristol County organizations are calling for the release of certain inmates from jail and immigration detention to allow for social distancing behind bars.

They say officials should consider releasing people who pose no threat to the community, such as inmates who would be out on bail but can’t afford it.

Organizations leading the charge in Bristol County include the Greater Southeastern Massachusetts Labor Council, of the AFL-CIO; United Interfaith Action; the Community Economic Development Center in New Bedford, which works with immigrants; and the activist group Bristol County for Correctional Justice.

This comes as the Supreme Judicial Court considers an emergency petition filed by statewide criminal defense groups.

LaSella Hall, president of the NAACP New Bedford Branch, said conditions inside could foster the spread of COVID-19.

“Because inmates are in close quarters, we just don’t see how there’s a way that they can be practicing social distancing,” he said.

A standard cell with two inmates measures seven by 10 feet. In immigration detention, two bunkrooms currently have 44 people each, in rows of beds placed closer than six feet.

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said staff members disinfect surfaces frequently and that current precautions are adequate.

“I don’t think that probably in a grocery store you’re going to find people six feet apart,” he said. “But you do have to make sure that you remind people about proper discipline around distancing and things like that.”

He said 80 percent of the jail population has a drug issue, and he believes releasing inmates would be dangerous.

Middlesex County is already reviewing cases for early release.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.