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Man arrested near Boston encampment sent to jail where there is a COVID outbreak 

Boston Public Health Commission workers and shelter volunteers pick up trash after clearing out tents of people living on Atkinson Street. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Boston Public Health Commission workers and shelter volunteers pick up trash after clearing out tents of people living on Atkinson Street. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Attorneys say one of the men who appeared at this week’s inaugural session of a new court inside the Suffolk County jail is now being held at another jail where there is a coronavirus outbreak.

The court, which officials are calling the “Community Response Court Session,” began in the Suffolk County jail Monday as a way to help deal with a sprawling tent encampment near Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, an area sometimes referred to as “Mass. and Cass.”

Three men appeared during Monday’s session in a small room inside the South Bay House of Correction where a judge presided remotely. They were arrested on outstanding criminal warrants for charges ranging from drug possession to larceny to breaking and entering.

One of the men who appeared, 33-year-old Maxwell Kolodka, was ordered held because of an outstanding criminal warrant related to a driving under the influence case in Fitchburg. Although Kolodka’s attorney and prosecutors agreed on a treatment plan rather than incarceration, Boston Municipal Court Judge Paul Treseler ordered Kolodka to appear in Fitchburg to deal with the warrant.

Kolodka was then transported to the Worcester County jail where a coronavirus outbreak has been reported. David Tuttle, superintendent of the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction, said two of the jail’s housing units are under medical quarantine after 33 prisoners there tested positive for the virus last week.

Kolodka’s attorney said he is concerned for his client’s wellbeing and questioned why the judge chose to keep him in custody rather than send him to a treatment program.

“He was transported in a sheriff van to the Worcester County House of Correction where there is an active COVID outbreak,” said attorney Joshua Raisler Cohn, who represented Kolodka at the special session Monday. “He needed medical care, which is the stated purpose of this court. Instead, he was subjected to a painful and dangerous detox and withdrawal, first while being transported to another county, and then in jail.”

Raisler Cohn said after Kolodka’s appearance in Fitchburg, he was ordered held on $1,500 bail and sent back to the Worcester jail. Kolodka was still incarcerated there as of Wednesday.

Despite continued criticism from defense attorneys and other advocates, the special court session continued. Three more people were brought before the judge both Tuesday and Wednesday.

On Tuesday, one woman was ordered to go to a medical detox program in Boston, but Judge Treseler issued a warrant for her arrest later the same day after she failed to show up there. Attorneys said the defendant did not understand that detox was a condition of her release. Her outstanding warrants involved charges of drug possession, trespassing and operating a motor vehicle after suspension or revocation.

Another woman who appeared Tuesday was ordered to treatment. For that defendant, the outstanding warrants were for charges of leaving the scene of property damage.

A third defendant was ordered held Tuesday to deal with an outstanding warrant in Hingham for drug possession.

After Wednesday’s session, the court adjourned until Monday.

Most of the people brought to the special court session so far have not had outstanding warrants related to serious crimes that have occurred near the “Mass. and Cass” area. Boston officials said last week that the special session is designed to deal with serious criminal offenders who frequent the encampment, but they also said the court session is not related to the city’s ongoing removal of tents in the area.

“It is not our expectation that the unsheltered vulnerable individuals that we are looking to help and support are the primary subject of this new Community Response Session,” said Stephanie Garrett-Stearns, chief communications officer for acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey, during a press briefing Friday. “That session is really designed to target individuals charged with serious offenses who are preying upon the more vulnerable in this part of our city.”

The city has said that before tents are removed, people will be given notice, provided with storage for their belongings and offered shelter or treatment. Several activists who are monitoring the court sessions and tent removals accuse city officials of trying to clear the encampment as quickly as possible.

“I don’t see that we’re making a difference other than rousting people who are dealing with a lot of complex problems and making it harder for them to try to get a grip on things that are troubling or challenging them in their lives,” said Jim Stewart, director of First Church Shelter in Cambridge. “All it’s going to do is tell them to go someplace else because they don’t want them in the ‘Mass. and Cass’ area.”

Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins is also renovating part of a building on his jail campus to use it as a treatment program for up to 100 men and women living in the encampment. A spokesman for the sheriff said as of Wednesday, the plan for the treatment center has not yet been approved by the state.

A group of advocates is already calling on Boston mayor elect Michelle Wu to change the way Boston is dealing with the encampment.

A coalition of housing, public health and civil rights advocates asked Wu Wednesday to stop clearing the tents. They said the new mayor of Boston should take a “health centered approach to the intersecting crises people are experiencing” in the area.

The new group, which calls itself the Public Heath and Human Rights for Mass and Cass Coalition, is calling for a combination of strategies to help people frequenting the area, including housing with fewer barriers for people experiencing challenges such as addition, expanding programs to provide voluntary treatment or access to addiction medications right away and piloting a supervised drug consumption site.

The group also recommended helping people meet their basic needs until they have access to housing.

The coalition includes members of the Massachusetts Society of Addiction Medicine, the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, Boston Medical Center’s Grayken Center for Addiction Medicine and the Health in Justice Action Lab at Northeastern University.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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