Luis Santiago was moved from the state prison in Cheshire to Corrigan Correctional Center in Uncasville in June of 2021. He said he’s had a revolving door of cellmates, even though his doctor recommended he be by himself because of his severe asthma, a condition that could make him more susceptible to the effects of COVID-19.
“Inmates come straight off the street into the facility without being quarantined,” Santiago said. “Even though I’m vaccinated, I still don’t feel safe.”
Though the Department of Correction maintains that they do follow rigorous testing protocol, Santiago told a different story, of dirty cells, a crowded chow hall, and missing masks.
“When the inmates are asking for masks so they can protect their self, the facility doesn’t have any masks to pass out,” said Santiago. “I don’t feel safe at all with them not wearing their masks."
Santiago said that when he goes to his doctor’s appointments at UConn Health in Farmington, he grabs a disposable mask. He said he wears it over and over again. Worried he won’t get a new one until his next appointment, he even tries washing it.
“It's one of the thin paper ones; you got to be gentle when you wash it,” he explained.
In a statement, the Department of Correction told NBC Connecticut:
“We continue to enforce a mask mandate for both employees and all incarcerated individuals. Masks are readily available.”
“They’re not wearing them at all. I’m looking at three COs right now, they don’t have any mask,” said Santiago of the correction officers standing near him when we interviewed him over the phone.
It’s especially concerning to Santiago, whose medical records, which his mother shared with NBC Connecticut, show that he was first diagnosed with asthma when he was five years old and has been hospitalized multiple times.
“One of the persons who was put in the same cell as my son, he ended up with the COVID, and then after they moved him they put another person in there without cleaning the area,” said Marquita Nelson, Santiago’s mother.
“We haven’t had cell clean-up since I’ve been here. They don’t allow the inmates to clean their cells. The showers are filthy,” Santiago said.
When COVID outbreaks occur, Santiago said the prison goes on lockdown, forcing him and other inmates into isolation.
“Sometimes we go for days and weeks and I know if I don’t hear from him I know that they’re on lockdown,” said Nelson.
The DOC spokesperson also told NBC Connecticut that during the latest omicron surge, it had to reduce operations to manage staff shortages.
“In December 2021 and January 2022, the Corrigan Correctional Center suspended activities 6.6% of the time to adjust for staff home recovering from COVID-19.”
The DOC said phones were off limits, but contradicted the notion that inmates were in full isolation for days at a time:
“There were no occasions when the staffing level restricted the movement for multiple shifts in a row.”
Santiago, who has spent the past two decades in prison for a felony murder conviction, said he believes the “lockdowns” as he called them could have been avoided if the prison followed proper protocols.
“It makes me angry, very angry,” said Santiago. “I’m still a human being. I still have a family.”
NBC Connecticut reached out to DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros for comment several times since December but were told he was unavailable and instead given this statement:
“It’s important to acknowledge that the Department of Correction will likely witness an uptick in COVID cases when the community is experiencing an increase in cases. However, our pandemic plans are working to minimize active COVID-19 cases. This is evident based on the fact that the Department of Correction has consistently remained below the community positivity rate. As a congregate setting that is vulnerable to the spread of the virus, we reduce activities when we see an uptick at a particular location. We follow a phase system much like you see used by the state of Connecticut and other states across the country. We continue to enforce a mask mandate for both employees and all incarcerated individuals. Masks are readily available. All employees are either vaccinated or submit to weekly testing in compliance with the Governor’s Executive Order. Additionally, the population follows significant testing protocols. Each inmate is tested upon intake, prior to transfer, prior to release, before a community medical appointment, when symptomatic, when identified in contract tracing and the entire population is tested every other week. Our last mass testing resulted in a 2.7% positivity rate.”
The Department of Correction had the lowest compliance rate of any state department following the Governor’s vaccine mandate for state employees.
However, the requirement was rescinded in late December.