Shortages of masks, cleaning supplies persist at Conn. prisons

DOC officials said 139 staff members and 199 inmates statewide had been confirmed to have COVID-19

By Karen Florin
The Day

MONTVILLE, Conn. — Mary Haeseler has a challenging job inside the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Institution even during the best of times.

As an identification and records specialist, she sits with inmates to explain how their sentences are calculated and, sometimes, to help them understand why they are not being released. She prepares the paperwork for court appearances and ensures state law is being followed. Haeseler, who has worked in the state Department of Correction for 30 years, has an office in the Radgowski building, where inmates are housed in a dormitory setting that makes social distancing impossible.

As the coronavirus continued to spread in the Uncasville facility, Haeseler decided that continuing to work there was too risky for her, since she has an underlying health condition, and for other family members who are at risk. She said she obtained a doctor's note to take a 14-day COVID-19 leave and will use sick time until she thinks it's safe to return.

Haeseler spoke to The Day by phone this week, along with representatives from the AFSCME NP-3 Administrative-Clerical Bargaining Unit, which issued a news release about the mounting concerns of the 250 correctional employees in the union. Most are women who are the chief providers for their families, according to the release.

DOC said that as of Wednesday, 139 staff members and 199 inmates statewide had been confirmed to have the virus. Corrigan was the first facility to report an inmate had COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, last month. Updated figures for all Corrigan-Radgowski staff and inmates with the virus were not immediately available, but DOC reported Wednesday that 10 additional inmates from Corrigan-Radgowski had been transferred to a medical isolation unit at the Northern Correctional Institution in Somers. The department would not immediately confirm a report that additional sick inmates were being transported to Northern on Thursday.

Haeseler said that as of April 3, DOC was allowing her to work from home two days a week and a half-day on Fridays. Union officials say that because the clerical workers are on the front line, they should be issued personal protective equipment, or PPE, along with all the other staff.

In a message distributed to all DOC staff at the beginning of their shift Wednesday, Commissioner Rollin Cook outlined the efforts he has been making to acquire PPE, saying he wants nothing more than to provide the staff with the highest level of protective equipment, including N95 face masks.

"The reality is, at this time I cannot," said the roll call message from Cook. "Issuing each employee a N95 mask for routine duties will result in an absolute depletion of supplies in just days at a time when the state is preparing for the peak of the epidemic, accompanied by a surge of hospitalizations."

All employees were issued a surgical mask this week and are now authorized to wear masks they bring from home.

For Haeseler, the risk was too great. She said inmates who clean the dormitories also come into her office, cleaning supplies were scarce and she started bringing her own from home. DOC issued cloth masks made by inmates but she said wearing them was not mandatory, and she wasn't allowed to turn away unmasked people from her office. Until recently, staff members were having their temperature taken in the lobby, and there was no hand sanitizer available.

"I will say our warden and deputy warden have done a phenomenal job, given what resources they have," Haeseler said. "But when I found out that we had approximately 30 staff members quarantining at home and some of their doctors would not test them because they were relatively healthy, I thought 'I cannot afford to bring this home to my family.'"

Roberta Price, a staff representative for the union, said one clerical worker from Hartford was confirmed to have the virus and five other clerical workers in the state who had symptoms were cleared to return to work.

Karen Martucci, DOC director of external affairs, said the agency has been working with state officials to determine alternative work locations and schedules and would continue to work with the unions.

"Understanding this is a difficult time for everyone, an agency like ours does not have the ability to completely shut down operations," Martucci said in an email. "It is simply not an option. With that being said, we are working diligently to protect our employees and the offender population we care for as best we can."


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