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Connecticut correction officers want the state to hire more workers to ease COVID-19 woes

Sheriff's deputies and on-site nurses give medications to an inmate at Las Colinas Women's Detention Facility in Santee, California, on April 22, 2020. - Inmates and Sheriff's deputies at the prison are practicing COVID-19 measures including wearing masks, staying keeping a safe distance and doing more frequent cleaning at the facility. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker / AFP) (Photo by SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP via Getty Images)
Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images
Sheriff's deputies and on-site nurses give medications to an incarcerated person at Las Colinas Women's Detention Facility in Santee, California, on April 22, 2020.

Workers within the state prison system say Connecticut needs to hire more correction officers to alleviate staffing shortages related to COVID-19.

Infection rates in Connecticut have skyrocketed over the last month. This week, more than 1,100 workers from the Connecticut Department of Correction are recovering from COVID-19.

Sean Howard, the president of AFSCME Local 387, a union that represents correction officers, follows his eight-hour shift at the union office with another shift at the Cheshire Correctional Institution.

“My team that I’m here with, we do that every day. We do that every day, and our families suffer,” Howard said.

“I’m lucky if I see my family one hour every night.”

Howard said that as many as 80 people were out at his facility recently. And because prisons still need coverage, employees who come in have to work 16-hour shifts, he said.

“Eighty [workers out] and the department still looks at us to run a safe and secure facility, which is very hard for our guys,” Howard said.

He said incarcerated people are impacted by this, too: Workers can’t provide necessary programming for them when a facility is short-staffed.

The Cheshire Correctional Institution 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
The Cheshire Correctional Institution on April 6, 2020, in Cheshire, Connecticut. Inmates and DOC employees continue to test positive for COVID-19 at jails and prisons throughout the state.

Howard’s union believes the infections are compounding a problem that existed before the latest pandemic. AFSCME Council 4 said that as of last summer, the number of workers needed to adequately staff correction facilities was short by 406. Howard, who said the state isn’t hiring enough correction staff given that “mass retirement” is looming, wants Gov. Ned Lamont to push more classes of correction officers through the academy.

“We could be going through this again in the spring, the fall, the winter, so let’s be prepared for it.”

Meanwhile, the governor’s office says it’s taking steps to address this need.

“Our administration has continued to recruit additional officers for the Department of Correction,” said Max Reiss, Lamont’s communications director. “We have also authorized the rehiring of retired officers to help alleviate the strain on facilities.”

Aside from staffing shortages, Howard and members of his union continue to work for a unit that has the lowest vaccination rate of all state executive branch agencies that must get either shots or tests. About 25% of prison workers are unvaccinated, with 9% unvaccinated and not testing.

Howard said it isn’t his responsibility to encourage union members to get their shots.

“My job is to encourage the staff to get weekly [tests] as the governor has suggested and mandated,” Howard said.

Howard maintains that the correction officers are compliant with the mandate because 91% of DOC workers are either vaccinated or submitting to weekly testing. The DOC’s view of compliance is similar to Howard’s.

“The decision to receive a vaccination is an individual choice, a hesitancy we have seen impact all classifications of employees,” said Ashley McCarthy, a DOC spokesperson. “Yet, there has been no reluctance by our staff to be compliant with the governor’s executive order.”

Howard said the unvaccinated aren’t to blame for the spread of COVID-19 in the state’s prisons.

“I got many staff members that are out, that have been double vaccinated and boostered, so people are getting sick whether vaccinated or unvaccinated,” Howard said, “so to blame the unvaccinated is highly unfair.”

The state says the majority of people hospitalized due to COVID-19 – 68.3% – are unvaccinated.

COVID-19 has already claimed the lives of two locally incarcerated people in the first weeks of this year. The state recently announced that inmates have died after testing positive for the virus, bringing the total COVID-19 fatalities among Connecticut’s incarcerated population to 25.

About half of the incarcerated population in Connecticut is vaccinated and boosted: 49% of 9,529 men and women behind bars.

The department doesn’t force inmates or workers to get vaccinated. Instead, it offers them the opportunity to get vaccinated and tests everyone weekly. The DOC also requires all workers to wear masks on duty and get tested weekly.

If the state hires new correction officers to work in prisons, per Howard’s request, new recruits must be vaccinated.

Frankie Graziano is the host of The Wheelhouse, focusing on how local and national politics impact the people of Connecticut.

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