ACLU: Conn. prisons not complying with COVID-19 agreement
The group claims the DOC isn't enforcing its mask requirement, providing inmates adequate soap and cleaning supplies or properly quarantining inmates
By Karen Florin
NEW LONDON, Conn. — The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut says the state Department of Correction is not enforcing its mask requirement for staff, providing prisoners adequate soap and cleaning supplies or properly quarantining inmates who test positive for COVID-19, all in violation of this past spring's settlement of a federal class-action lawsuit over the department's response to the coronavirus pandemic.
In an Oct. 23 letter to lawyers in the state attorney general's office, attorneys for ACLU wrote they've received consistent and repeated reports from inmates, their loved ones and lawyers visiting clients in custody that DOC is not adhering to its court-mandated requirements at all 14 of its facilities.
"These systemic patterns of non-compliance are particularly alarming given rapidly rising positivity rates across Connecticut — and within DOC, as evidenced by the recent outbreak at Hartford Correctional Center," ACLU of Connecticut attorneys Elana Bildner and Dan Barrett wrote. "Compliance is getting worse, not better, and just as COVID-19 positivity rates spike, again, in Connecticut."
Under the terms of the settlement agreement, lawyers from the attorney general's office have until Nov. 12 to respond to the ACLU of Connecticut's letter.
As the number of coronavirus cases climbed inside the prisons in April, the ACLU brought the class-action lawsuit on behalf of all inmates incarcerated between March and the end of 2020. The settlement was reached in July.
The DOC reports that from the beginning of the pandemic through Oct. 13, it has had 1,624 inmates test positive for COVID-19 and seven have died. The agency reports that 55 staff members are recovering from the virus, four COVID-19-positive inmates have symptomatic cases and 68 have no symptoms. The DOC pared its population throughout the spring, focusing on offenders eligible for release, and the inmate population as of July 1 numbered 9,945, the lowest since 1990.
The ACLU letter indicates that chief among reports is that across multiple facilities, units and shifts, one-tenth to half of staff do not wear masks on a regular basis. The unmasked have included medical staff, correctional staff who distribute meals and administrative staff, according to the letter, which indicates some staff are donning their masks only when a supervisor walks by.
Other alleged violations include irregular provision of masks and cleaning supplies to prisoners. Under the settlement, the DOC is required to distribute a minimum of two cloth or barrier masks per person, and allow for one mask to be exchanged each week for a new mask. The settlement requires provision of cleaning supplies at least twice a week for cells, cubicles or sleeping areas. The ACLU said some inmates in New Haven have been using shampoo to clean their cells.
Inmates also have reported they are not receiving soap once a week, as required, that the agency is no longer distributing "care packages" that included Irish Spring soap and other hygiene items, and that staff are breaking bars of soap in half before distributing them. The ACLU said it has received reports that inmates in restrictive housing units are not being allowed to shower every other day, as required, and that those in quarantine for COVID-19 are not being allowed to shower at all.
Other reports include people whose COVID-19 test results have not yet been returned to them being placed with people who already have tested positive, people who are asymptomatic being placed in cells with people who have COVID-19-like symptoms and people who have tested positive being placed in conditions that constitute "punitive isolation."
"For example, we have heard that people at (the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Montville) with suspected COVID-19 symptoms are being kept in their cells without any ability to leave," the letter says.
Karen Martucci, director of external affairs for DOC, said in an email Tuesday that the ACLU letter is being referred to a monitoring panel that was established as part of the settlement to make recommendations related to mass testing strategy, quarantining and cohorting, and sanitation and sanitization.
"We are not aware that any of these alleged violations have in fact occurred and are currently looking into them," Martucci said. "We are committed to adhering to the original agreement, which mainly included provisions already in place as part of the agency's COVID-19 response plan. The health and safety of our population and employees remain our top priority."
The mask requirement has been reinforced through communication with staff, Martucci said. On Oct. 14, DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros wrote to staff members to remind them of the importance of wearing masks, washing their hands, not touching their faces and maintaining safe practices outside of work, as well.
"The best way to keep the virus from spreading throughout the facilities is to not bring it in in the first place," Quiros wrote. "As we brace ourselves for the next wave, I know I can count on each of you to do your part to keep our facilities operating safely."
The letter to staff indicated that the DOC has been stockpiling personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies and continuing to fine-tune plans to mitigate the spread of the virus. The agency is conducting its third round of mass testing of inmates.
(c)2020 The Day (New London, Conn.)