Commentary: A prescription for a faster, fairer recovery

On the night of May 1, reports emerged from the Bristol County jail that an incident involving coronavirus testing had turned violent. Guards had used pepper spray and K9 dogs against detainees in ICE custody, three of whom ended up in the hospital. Meanwhile, the sheriff’s office said it was detainees who attacked guards first and destroyed property in the unit. The following morning, I drove the hour from Boston to Bristol, determined to do my job as a state legislator and investigate. My goal was to talk with staff and detainees about what had happened.

I didn’t get any farther than the parking lot. There, I was turned away, even though Massachusetts law empowers legislators to enter the state’s correctional facilities at any time to provide exactly this type of oversight. Nor was I the only one kept out; lawyers and family members said that in the wake of the incident, they were unable to reach their clients and loved ones. Their outpouring of concern, and the three independent investigations that have since been opened, have kept the spotlight on the Bristol County jail. But inside, detainees’ health and safety are still at risk. Twenty-six of those involved in the incident have since been placed in solitary confinement. Last week, a federal judge ruled that the sheriff has been deliberately reckless with the health of ICE detainees throughout the coronavirus crisis. That Saturday morning, I drove down to Bristol County for one simple reason: The people inside were intensely vulnerable. Two weeks later, that hasn’t changed.

But it’s not just immigrants in ICE custody, or the disproportionately black and brown population in Massachusetts prisons and jails who are shouldering risks that are far too high.

Chelsea, a city with a 45 percent immigrant population, has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in Massachusetts. The virus has spread rapidly there; infection rates are nearly six times higher than the state’s average. Language barriers, high levels of air pollution, and significant numbers of essential workers who don’t have the option to stay home have combined to make the disease even more dangerous than elsewhere.

In Dorchester, similar factors are in play, giving the neighborhood one of the highest infection rates in Boston. Around one in three Dorchester residents are immigrants and 45 percent of the population is black. Many residents work low-wage essential jobs that can’t be done from home. Dorchester also has the highest asthma rate in Boston; the underlying condition increases the risk that the virus will be fatal. This combination of health, environmental, and economic vulnerabilities is foisting disproportionate loss onto black and brown communities—immigrant and non-immigrant—alike.

It’s a daunting picture, and a deeply unjust one. But it’s not one we have to accept, either. There’s a lot we can do right now to make sure that black, brown, and immigrant communities in Bristol, in Chelsea, right here in Dorchester, and throughout Massachusetts are safer and healthier, with the resources they need to care for themselves and their families.

We can pass a strong and substantial safety net by expanding benefits for housing and cash assistance and increasing funding for Lifeline—the program that provides free or low-cost data and phone service. We can institute state-level stimulus checks to get cash directly into the hands of those who need it most. We can release people who pose little to no threat to public safety from our jails and prisons. We can pass meaningful environmental justice legislation to clean up the toxic air in communities like Dorchester and Chelsea, where decades of accumulated air pollution are now linked to a higher risk of dying from COVID-19. And we can make drivers licenses available to all qualified state residents, regardless of immigrant status, so residents who have access to a car can get to and from their front-line service jobs, the doctor, and the grocery store without having to fear infection on public transit.

If we do these things—if we act swiftly and deliberately to tackle COVID-19 health disparities at their source—we will enable low-income families to be agents of solution in this crisis, rather than victims. And that, in turn, means a faster track to recovery for everyone.

Sonia Chang-Díaz represents the Second Suffolk District in the state Senate.