Conn. prisons continue to grapple with COVID-19 outbreak

A CO at the Garner Correctional Institution has been self-monitoring at home after testing positive for COVID-19

By Karen Florin
The Day

NEWTOWN, Conn. — The state Department of Correction said Tuesday that it has reduced its prison population without changing its current procedures for releasing prisoners and is prepared to take additional measures in the event of a widespread outbreak of COVID-19 within the prison system.

The DOC, which on Monday announced that a correction officer at the Garner Correctional Institution had tested positive for the coronavirus, said the population in its 14 prisons has decreased by 310 people — from 12,409 to 12,099 — since March 1, utilizing the existing protocols. The department said Tuesday that releasing prisoners during a national health crisis is complex, listing housing options and limited community services among the challenges.

At the same time, the department said it is working under its current policy to release those who have solid housing plans and to create additional beds for those who might need to be quarantined. The department also has added a process to prioritize those considered at high risk of becoming seriously ill.

The DOC also is conducting continuous cleaning at the facilities and has suspended social visits, volunteer programs and offender work crews in the community. It is serving meals in the housing units, limiting recreational groups to one housing unit at a time and limiting the transfer of prisoners between facilities.

"We understand families are naturally worried," DOC Commissioner Rollin Cook said in a prepared statement. "This applies both to our employees and the offender population. There is a human dignity component here. We are all living in a time of extreme uncertainty. With that being said, this is one giant balancing act, and our current practice is moving the needle in the right direction. I am committed to our mission of public safety and I will also continue to safely transition offenders home. Through this all, I cannot overstate the camaraderie we have witnessed as we all pull together to get the job done. I couldn't be more proud of the people of this department."

Also Tuesday, the state Judicial Branch said it is taking further steps to keep judicial marshals, correctional staff and prisoners as safe as possible.

In the near future, judicial marshals assigned to transport prisoners between courthouses and correctional facilities will be screened at roll call for abnormal temperatures, according to Rhonda Stearley-Hebert, program manager of communications.

Though thermometers were issued last week to each courthouse, judicial marshals will not be required to take the temperatures of individuals in their custody. Prisoners who exhibit any symptoms of COVID-19 and have a fever will be screened by medical personnel prior to being taken to a correctional facility, according to Stearley-Hebert.

If there is a question about a prisoner's health as it relates to the virus, the facility will be contacted prior to the prisoner being transported.

The Judicial Branch has consolidated its operations into 13 courthouses and limited its operations to priority business, which includes arraignments, or initial court appearances, of those newly arrested. The arraignment docket in the New London Judicial District has been small on most days, court officials said, and most court appearances have been continued at least two weeks as the courts seek to balance the rights of those who have pending matters with the need to reduce traffic in the courts and maintain social distancing.

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has been pressing for the release of low-risk offenders in anticipation of the virus' arrival in the state.  

"Incarcerated people are sitting ducks in the COVID-19 pandemic," said Melvin Medina, ACLU of Connecticut public policy and advocacy director. "They cannot protect themselves in prisons and jails. Despite calls from family members, formerly incarcerated people, and other loved ones of people inside, Governor (Ned) Lamont has been silent on protecting incarcerated people from COVID-19. The ACLU of Connecticut has been calling for him to release a plan since March 12. The positive test of a Department of Correction worker adds even more urgency to the need for Governor Lamont to act now to thoughtfully release people who are incarcerated, limit new prison and jail admissions, and reduce the risk for any people who remain incarcerated."

The ACLU also called on President Donald Trump to grant clemency to elderly and sick federal prisoners.

Also Tuesday, correction officers and first responders from around the country joined with their union, the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, in a conference call to demand that relief funds being contemplated by Congress go to those working on the front lines.

Aimmee Reyes-Greaves, supervisor of the industries program at the Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers and chief steward of the AFSCME Local 391, said on the call that Connecticut needs federal help as it prepares for the possibility of a prison staff shortage in the event of a widespread outbreak. She said staff have been receiving updates at every roll call meeting and that she's seen protective masks in her facility, but wonders if there are enough masks and other resources.

"As the coronavirus spreads, it has become critical to ask what steps are being done to help the jails and prisons," she said.


©2020 The Day (New London, Conn.)

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