Nineteen inmates have died from the coronavirus in Connecticut Department of Correction prisons. One year after the pandemic began to spread across the state, Connecticut Public is revisiting the early days of the crisis.
Carlos DeLeon died on April 13, 2020, from the coronavirus.
Maria Ruiz said her father, whom the family called “peto,” was near the end of a two-year prison sentence in March when he became sick with the coronavirus.
“I just want people to know that it wasn’t OK for him to die that way,” Ruiz said.
She said DeLeon had been sick and complaining of illness for some time. But it can take a while before inmates receive medical care because they first have to file a written request. “And in my dad’s case it took three weeks [of] not feeling well and sick,” Ruiz said.
The Connecticut Department of Correction said DeLeon was taken to the hospital on April 8. He tested positive the next day, and four days later he became the first inmate in the state to die from COVID-19.
Ruiz said her father told family members that prison guards weren’t wearing masks and that he wasn’t provided one.
In an email to Connecticut Public, the DOC said masks were distributed to inmates and staff starting March 17, and a mask mandate began April 21.
Still, none of that could ensure inmate safety, according to Barbara Fair, an advocate for better prison conditions with Stop Solitary Connecticut.
“I was getting letters from people in prison talking about how the correctional officers were walking around without masks,” Fair said, “so they felt like they were sitting ducks.”
- Maria Ruiz
Fair looked to Gov. Ned Lamont early in the pandemic to use his executive powers to release large groups of inmates early in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. While Fair found the approach lacking, the rate of early releases was at its highest in a decade in 2020. Still, Fair and other advocates question the whole approach to inmate safety.
She wondered whether racism affects their view of inmates. “Is it because these are Black and brown people that there’s no plan to preserve their lives?”
Max Reiss, Lamont’s communications director, said that in hindsight he believes the administration naturally sees areas where it could have done better. But given the circumstances, Reiss thinks the state did well.
“Prisons are difficult places to distance,” he said, “but based on some of these numbers, especially compared to our peers in other states, we feel the Department of Correction has done incredible work.”
Maria Ruiz says that in her father’s case, the issue was safety within the prison.
“Connecticut needs to do better than that,” Ruiz said, “because if they’re so quick to lock people up and give them time, then you need to provide them with the proper care that they need while they’re in there. Because ultimately, the sentence wasn’t death. He was ready to come home.”
For more personal stories from those impacted by the coronavirus, watch The Cost of COVID, a Connecticut Public Cutline special. It airs Thursday, March 18 on CPTV and at cptv.org.
Ali Oshinskie is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Ali covers the Naugatuck River Valley for Connecticut Public Radio. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @ahleeoh.