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Judge Approves COVID-19 Connecticut Prison Lawsuit Settlement Over Inmate Objections

Cloe Poisson
CT Mirror
Sign at the entrance to Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers.

Over the objections of more than 400 inmates, a U.S. district court judge approved an agreement this week between the ACLU of Connecticut and the state on a class-action lawsuit filed to protect the incarcerated population from COVID-19.

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The settlement terms don’t require big changes in Department of Correction operations. It mandates increased medical monitoring for people who test positive for coronavirus, and that facilities make their best effort to return people quarantined for COVID-19 to their prior housing, jobs and programs. The DOC also must provide inmates cleaning materials and personal protective equipment.

Perhaps the most noteworthy piece of the agreement is the creation of a five-member panel to monitor compliance with the terms. The members will make recommendations to help the DOC stay in compliance with federal guidelines on responding to the virus. Specifically, they will focus on mass testing strategies, quarantining the sick and sanitation practices.

The group will produce monthly written reports for the first three months, after which they will decide whether to go to a quarterly publishing schedule. The reports will be made public.

The state chose DOC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Byron Kennedy and William Mulligan, a district administrator and the interim deputy commissioner for operations and rehabilitative services, as its panel representatives. The ACLU hasn’t selected its two panel members yet. Once the four panelists are selected, they will work together to select a fifth member.

Hundreds of inmates filed objections to the settlement terms in the weeks prior to the ruling. Many of them took issue with the criteria officials were using to release inmates to spare them from facing an outbreak from behind bars. The agreement states the department must fast-track medically vulnerable inmates, or those age 65 and older, for release. Incarcerated plaintiffs called for broadening the categories so that those who have served significant portions of their sentence or are age 50 and up are also prioritized for release.

Others demanded the DOC allow family members to visit their loved ones, a practice that has been suspended since March because of the pandemic. Bryan Jordan, an inmate at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, wrote in his objection that visitations are vital forms of rehabilitation for inmates like him, who are ineligible for rehabilitative programming because of their convictions.

“Put differently, what is left for prisoners like me is the reliance on the moral support of our loved ones,” he wrote. “This liberty is now gone.”

At least 50 incarcerated people requested to opt out of the class action, preferring to seek relief through their own lawsuits. The judge denied their request.

Currently there is one inmate in correctional facilities who has tested positive for COVID-19 and is showing symptoms; there are seven incarcerated people who have confirmed cases of the virus but are asymptomatic.

The ruling comes as advocates continue to press officials to release people from correctional facilities to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice issued a letter Tuesday tying the impending special session on police accountability to the pandemic’s effect on the incarcerated population.

Considering the racial disparities in prisons and jails, it is “baffling” that lawmakers would convene to address systemic racism in policing without also tackling the public health crisis behind bars, said Kenyatta Thompson, Katal’s lead community organizer.

“This needs to happen during the special session,” Thompson said. “We can’t wait any longer.”

Andre McGuire, pastor and member of Katal, said the agreement did not go far enough to protect those who are locked up.

“Making sure somebody gets an extra bar of soap is good, but after they finish washing their hands, what’s gonna happen?” he asked. “Their lives are in danger.”

Thompson said Katal will continue to press lawmakers and push for a meeting with the governor in the coming months — there remains the possibility of another special session in September — to protect those in state correctional facilities.

“They were incarcerated,” Thompson said. “They didn’t get sentenced to die.”

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