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State Response To COVID-19 Prison Lawsuit Sheds Light On Its Pandemic Plans For Sick Inmates

CHESHIRE, CT - April 06, The John R Manson Youth Institute on April 06, 2020 in Cheshire, Connecticut. Inmates & DOC employees continue to test positive for COVID-19 at jails & prisons throughout the state.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public/NENC
The Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire, Connecticut, on April 6, 2020. Inmates and DOC employees continue to test positive for COVID-19 at jails and prisons throughout the state.

In an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the state’s prisons and jails, the Department of Correction will house all infected inmates at four facilities: Manson Youth Institution or Northern, York or Garner Correctional Institutions.

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Most of those who are infected will be held at Northern Correctional Institution, the state’s most secure prison located in Somers. That facility has seen a dramatic population decline over the past year, giving the department ample space to house those who are ill. The DOC said in a press release that the facility’s infrastructure has a ventilation unit in each housing unit that draws in outside air and exhausts it without recirculation, making it well equipped to mitigate the virus’ spread.

The new policy was highlighted in the state’s response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Connecticut last week. It called on authorities to release incarcerated people to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the state’s 14 correctional facilities. As of April 7, when the state filed its response to the suit, 46 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19. Four people have been sent to outside hospitals and one is in an intensive care unit.

As of Wednesday afternoon 52 staff members had tested positive for the virus. Officials are awaiting the results of 63 inmates’ tests to learn whether they have the virus as well.

The state’s response to the suit says that 5,759 masks have been given to DOC staff as of April 5. Additional masks have been distributed to all 11,619 inmates.

The decision to designate Northern as the main facility to hold COVID-positive inmates is notable. Last year a federal judge ruled that he conditions of confinement for death-row inmates held there were unconstitutional. The judge said the long periods of segregation and isolation, the cramped cells that smell like feces because of the facility’s plumbing problems and the lack of physical contact with loved ones were “cruel and unusual” confinement, even though the inmate named in the case had committed a “heinous crime.” In this case, those who are sent to Northern will face the same conditions, though not because of the nature of their crime or a disciplinary infraction, but because they contracted a virus. 

Three other penitentiaries will hold specialized populations who have COVID-19. Infected children and young adults will remain at Manson Youth Institution, a prison in Cheshire currently under federal investigation. Women will stay at York Correctional Institution. Those with mental health needs will be held at Garner Correctional Institution.

Northern will have a dedicated COVID-19 medical staff consisting of at least one provider on each day shift. Nursing staff will be available 24 hours per day, seven days a week. Nurses routinely check the blood pressure, temperature, pulse, respiration, lung sound and pain scale of each inmate who shows COVID-19 symptoms, according to the state’s court filing.

Mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in Connecticut correctional facilities is likely to further pressure an already strained system. The DOC’s medical teams are chronically short-staffed, and the department is facing a number of lawsuits relating to the quality of its medical care.

“DOC just does not have a good track record of providing medical care that meets the community standard of care,” said DeVaughn Ward, an attorney. He represents a female inmate who gave birth to her child inside her York Correctional Institution prison cell in February 2018.

A ‘thoughtful approach’ to community releases

The state’s legal filing also illuminates its efforts to remove inmates from its correctional facilities. Connecticut’s incarcerated population has seen a historic decline since March. There are 790 fewer people behind bars today than at the beginning of last month, underscoring COVID-19’s impact.

“I would not classify our efforts as a mass release,” Department of Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook said at the governor’s daily briefing this week. “However, the early focused attention on releases is evident.”

DOC is identifying all incarcerated people who might be eligible for medical or compassionate parole, two forms of release for which the eligibility criteria is very narrow, by obtaining their medical records and referring their cases to the Board of Pardons and Parole. The department is identifying inmates who are age 50 or older — 2,110 people, as of April 7 — and have high medical concerns as determined by the DOC. Health services staff are also identifying those with multiple medical maladies or chronic conditions who are at higher risk of complications from the virus.

Staff are working to get eligible candidates’ letters signed by medical professionals to support their applications, which are sent to the Board of Pardons and Parole so they can be considered for compassionate release.

The state’s filing also makes clear that on April 1 Cook expanded the use of furloughs for people approved for Transitional Supervision so they could be released up to 45 days early, “in order to limit an inmate’s exposure to COVID-19.”

The agency’s Community Release Unit can allow eligible incarcerated people to get out of prison before they have completed their sentence. The state told the court it would be “unreasonably dangerous to the community and the public, and irresponsible,” to release a large number of inmates at one time because social support networks have been “dramatically impacted” by COVID-19. A mass release would also negatively impact hospitals, clinics and medical facilities already strained by the pandemic, the state says.

The ACLU’s proposal, the state claims, “would negatively impact the DOC’s thoughtful, coordinated, and balanced approach to community releases, and would disregard the lack of a safety net available for most offenders when they are released from incarceration.”

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