It is impossible to practice social distancing in a prison. Accordingly, authorities in New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, New York and at least 12 other states have sent home people incarcerated for less serious offenses so they would not be exposed to an inevitable outbreak.
But the Connecticut Department of Correction has yet to publicly articulate its release plans, despite calls from the public, lawmakers and advocates to do so. Those calls became even louder Monday when the department announced its first COVID-19 case: a custody staff member tested positive for the virus.
Though as of Monday, everyone who enters a DOC facility must pass a wellness screening, including a temperature check, calls to release some of the state’s 12,138-person population from Connecticut’s 14 prisons is growing. Many of the incarcerated are elderly or have significant medical needs, characteristics that put them at risk of complications from COVID-19.
“They’re gonna be locked down at home anyway,” said Diane Hart, whose fiance has been incarcerated at Robinson Correctional Institution since last July. “If they really want to be jerks about it, put one of those ankle bracelets on them.”
Few are clamoring for everyone to be released; they’re asking officials to use discretion and release people held on bonds they can’t post, have little time left on their sentences or who are incarcerated for lower-level crimes.
“Something needs to be done about this,” Hart said. “Basically, you’re just leaving them there to die.”
Silence from above
State officials have mostly remained mum on the issue. Though Gov. Ned Lamont has held briefings nearly every day since COVID-19 appeared in Connecticut, he has not mentioned the incarcerated population’s vulnerability to an outbreak.
Sen. Gary Winfield, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, which has oversight authority over the DOC, has also reported trouble getting answers. When he asked the DOC last week whether it would take inmates’ access to housing and medical care into account when determining whether an individual should be released, it took them several days to respond to his seven questions with a series of answers Winfield said did not fully satisfy his original inquiries.
“We cannot communicate like this,” Winfield said.
In the absence of department missives, rumors abound, and the DOC twitter handle has been actively responding. It quickly addressed a claim over the weekend that MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution was not being regularly disinfected and that inmates did not have access to soap, and quickly noted that no inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Friday.
Winfield has heard a number of allegations about COVID-19 fears in Connecticut prisons. He worries that a lack of transparency will foster a spread of misinformation and conjecture.
“Some of the rumors seem more legitimate than others, which means in this environment, people are going to believe them,” he said.
A few people met outside the governor’s mansion on March 20 to call on him to release people before the virus made its way into a prison or jail. And for the last six days, Carmen Nieves has stood outside Bridgeport Correctional Center and demanded, on a livestream, that authorities act swiftly to release as many incarcerated people as possible. She’s especially worried about her husband, a 44-year-old asthmatic who has been incarcerated in Bridgeport since early February.
“It’s to the point I go to bed crying every night,” Nieves said in an interview. “No matter how much I do, it feels like nothing’s moving.”
If officials wait too long, Nieves warned, many elderly inmates and people with underlying medical conditions are at risk of complications should they contract the deadly virus sweeping across the world.
“That’s a death sentence,” Nieves said Monday, fretting over the Department of Correction’s silence on its plan to release some inmates. “What are they waiting for? For them to get sick? If my husband gets sick, I might lose him.”
According to a press release, the employee that tested positive Monday worked at Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown, last entering on March 17. No other staff member or incarcerated person has shown COVID-19 symptoms besides the employee, who is now at home self-monitoring, the DOC said.
“The level of interaction with the population varies day to day,” Karen Martucci, DOC spokeswoman, said in a text message. “Our health services team will work with the warden and her team to evaluate what level of contact occurred with both other employees and the inmate population.”
Despite the lack of public messaging on release plans, the state’s prison population fell this month. There were 271 fewer people behind bars on March 23 compared to March 1, according to figures posted daily. It is not clear whether the drop is because DOC is working to send certain inmates home sooner or because fewer people are being sent to jail or prison, a conscious effort by front-end criminal justice system gatekeepers like prosecutors, cops or judges, to lower the likelihood a new inmate brings the virus into a correctional facility.
Attorneys are closely watching for new developments. DeVaughn Ward, who represents inmates in a slew of cases involving substandard medical care, said it’s unlikely lawyers will file a civil claim before the outbreak makes its way into a state prison. He said any suit filed before then would likely be thrown out, but they are preparing to act if and when people start getting sick in Connecticut correctional facilities.
“If there is an outbreak in DOC, we stand ready to litigate it,” said Ward.
With visits from family and volunteers indefinitely suspended earlier this month and release plans unclear, prison phones are the most direct way family members can keep in touch with their incarcerated loved ones. Hart makes sure she talks to her fiance each day, where she hears the latest on life inside and they plan out how they’ll self-quarantine once he’s able to live with her in Cheshire.
“We talk every night because he knows how worried I am,” she said.