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As omicron spreads, Connecticut’s prison system isn’t spared

MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, the largest correctional facility in New England.
MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, the largest correctional facility in New England.

After a year and a half of the pandemic working its way through the state’s prisons and jails, COVID-19 had slowed down in the corrections system by the beginning of September. Fewer prisoners were being sent to the medical isolation unit at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, infection rates among the incarcerated population were falling and no one had died since Jan. 25.

As fall transitioned to winter, four incarcerated people died from the virus. Infection rates ticked up as vaccinations remained low among the incarcerated and corrections staff.

“Now, the MacDougall coronavirus unit is packed-jammed, and they had to open up a second one,” said Ellen Durko, a registered nurse who works in the prison system. “It’s just out of control. I can’t even fathom how it’s gotten this bad, except for the variant.”

As the rest of the state weathers a spike in cases due to the omicron variant, the correction system is in the throes of another COVID outbreak. Of the 9,468 people in state prisons and jails on Jan. 5, 417 were reported COVID-positive and asymptomatic, while 197 were showing symptoms.

The outbreak isn’t just confined to the incarcerated; 896 Department of Correction staff were COVID-positive as of Jan. 5, causing staff shortages and exacerbating already low morale among state employees exhausted from working in the prison system for the past two years during the pandemic.

Durko is one of the almost 900 DOC employees out of work with COVID-19. Corrections staff are tested for COVID-19 every week. Those who test positive, regardless of vaccination status, are out of work for five days, after which they can return if they don’t have symptoms.

Healthy staff are left to fill in for their sick colleagues. Fresh off working four 16-hour shifts in four days, Sean Howard, the president of AFSCME Local 387 who is stationed at Cheshire Correctional Institution, said he and his peers are tired and overworked, constantly getting mandated to work overtime.

“Staff morale right now couldn’t be any lower inside the facilities,” Howard said.

Having eight hours free between shifts doesn’t mean corrections officers sleep that whole time, said Robert Beamon, a member of Local 391 and a CO at Carl Robinson Correctional Institution. They have to drive home, interact with their family, maybe have a meal before they go to bed.

“You have sometimes you have people working an entire week or two with only four to five hours of sleep a day,” Beamon said. “And then they expect you to be vigilant and be able to watch the inmate population in an effective manner.”

Corrections union officials identified several changes they say would improve working conditions. Collin Provost, the president of AFSCME Local 391 who works at MacDougall-Walker, said hiring more employees and increasing opportunities for training are key.

“Because we’ve been so low on staffing levels, I think that training has taken a major back seat,” said Provost.

Staff could use training on exercising restraints to protect employees or other incarcerated people, how to recognize warning signs that could lead to violence and how to de-escalate situations involving prisoners who won’t comply with orders, Provost said.

Durko worked at Northern Correctional Institution earlier in the pandemic, when the DOC would send sick prisoners there. She acknowledges that incarcerated people would hide symptoms to avoid being sent to the supermax Somers prison, but she said the ventilation there was better than at MacDougall-Walker. She suggested temporarily re-opening Northern, to utilize its space.

Reopening Northern would draw the ire of advocates who fought for its closure for years because of the prolonged use of solitary confinement there.

“I think that would be the most disastrous thing in Connecticut in response to COVID-19,” said Barbara Fair, a longtime activist and the “mother of the movement” to end solitary confinement in Connecticut. “That place should never, ever have been built and shouldn’t be used for anything else.”

Low vaccination rates

The Department of Correction offers vaccinations and boosters when people enter the prison system. The incarcerated can also request a shot.

“With the growing cases of COVID-19, the Department of Correction remains attentive to the impact on our staff and those in our custody,” said Ashley McCarthy, the DOC’s director of external affairs. “We maintain our commitment to health and safety by ensuring access to vaccinations, booster shots, a continuous cleaning routine, continuous masking and a rigorous testing schedule. These efforts have proven to be effective for those who reside in our facilities, evidenced by a positivity rate well below that of the community.”

About 60% of DOC staff are vaccinated. As of Nov. 22, the Department of Correction had the lowest vaccination rate among executive branch employees, at 65%.

“Personally, I know a handful of people that were double vaccinated and boosted and still got COVID,” said Michael Vargo, the president of AFSCME Local 1565 who works at York Correctional Institution. “So, the governor’s mandate, we followed it to a T, and it’s up to the staff to do what they want to do, in my opinion.”

At this point, Provost said, testing is more important than vaccination because of the frequency ofbreakthrough cases.

“Vaccination doesn’t mean that you’re not going to be able to get the virus and still pass it on to an inmate. So it’s best that we continue to do weekly testing,” he said. “We need to kind of back off the idea of vaccination, because that’s not going to change the inmate population, either. The inmate population has not been forced to vaccinate either.”

About 52% of the people in prisons and jails are vaccinated against COVID-19. There’s an array of reasons for the low vaccination rate among the incarcerated, said Chad Petitpas, who is incarcerated at Robinson Correctional Institution. Petitpas spoke with more than a dozen of his peers, only one of whom got the shot. He identified three reasons for why they opted against the vaccine.

For one, there’s significant distrust between the incarcerated and those who run the prisons. They don’t feel the DOC has been honest with them or with the public about how it has run the system during the pandemic. Second, those who might be swayed by corrections employees are discouraged because even they won’t get the shot. And third, prisoners know incarcerated peers who have gotten the shot and still contracted COVID.

Prisoners also are susceptible to conspiracy theories they hear about from corrections staff, said Ray Boyd, who was released from Cheshire Correctional Institution last November after serving almost 30 years behind bars. They also could be influenced by anti-vax sentiment espoused by the Nation of Islam. Then there are socially conscious people who remember the Tuskegee Experiment, where the government withheld life-saving medications from African American men in order to study the progression of syphilis.

“You have all these different ideologies that float around the prison system. A lot of times it deters people from wanting to take the vaccination,” said Boyd, who was vaccinated after catching the virus and served as a COVID ambassador when he was locked up, trying to convince his peers to get the shot. “I didn’t want anyone to experience what it felt like for an elephant to be sitting on your chest, trying to take your last breath.”

Petitpas has gotten both his shots and a booster. He said he’s also gotten the virus twice. He’s still dealing with lingering symptoms, respiratory issues and some weird rashes that come and go. Still, he doesn’t regret getting vaccinated. He just thinks getting COVID is inevitable, considering where he lives, in a dormitory-style housing unit at Robinson Correctional Institution. In a room where social distancing is impossible, where he’s 3.5 feet from those who sleep next to him, Petitpas watches the virus spread from bunk bed to bunk bed, a silent stalker from which there is no escape.

“You can count on getting it. It’s just a matter of time,” Petitpas said. “Even people who are vaccinated are exposed to this virus without a break. So, it feels like even people who are vaccinated, that vaccination doesn’t really have a chance to work.”

Growing tensions

Tensions are starting to grow between vaccinated and unvaccinated members of the incarcerated population, Petitpas said. It can get uncomfortable when an unmasked person approaches their masked incarcerated peers.

“You feel like you have to defend your area,” Petitpas said. “That causes animosity and tension among you and the people who don’t think this is anything more than a glorified cold.”

Prisons with housing units that aren’t open-floor dorms have their own set of problems. The incarcerated are locked in their cells for long periods of time. Boyd said he’d get about an hour out of his cell each day so long as the facility had the staff, but if too many are out of work, he’d only get about 15 minutes out of his cell every 24 hours.

“You couldn’t even talk to anybody. It was, ‘Come out, take your shower, and lock up,’” said Boyd.

Corrections staff dispute the extent of lockdowns. Provost, the union president at MacDougall-Walker, said modifications have been made to lockdown policies so, even if staffing levels are low, the incarcerated can still shower, make phone calls and eat outside their cells.

“We’re not locking them up and throwing the key away,” said Howard, the union president at Cheshire Correctional. “They’re still getting their time to eat, their time to shower, their time on the phones to talk to their loved ones.”

Boyd said the time he served in prison during the pandemic was the most isolating of the 29.5 years he spent locked up. Trying to channel his energy into something productive, he wrote a book called “The Model Inmate,” so people would know what good he’d done with his life, how he’d mentored incarcerated young people and walked away from a life of gang violence. He was scared of dying in his cell, forever defined by the life he took when he was 17.

“I spent 60% of my life incarcerated,” Boyd said. “I didn’t want to just be remembered for the crime that I committed.”

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