“What they’re doing is ridiculous, illogical, and arbitrary.”
Inmate Michael Liebowitz leveled that criticism toward the Connecticut Department of Correction’s response to the novel coronavirus.
He called NBC Connecticut Investigates after watching our series of stories on an exclusive survey of 300 plus correction officers on how the DOC has handled the pandemic.
So far seven inmates have died from it, and hundreds of inmates and correction officers have tested positive, most of them asymptomatic.
“Everybody thinks it’s ridiculous….guys (inmates) sent out and brought back in…CO’s not wearing masks…the lack of social distancing on the part of inmates and staff,” Liebowitz said.
He has spent roughly the past year at Osborn Correctional. He’s 23 years in on an assault conviction, and not scheduled for release anytime soon.
“It’s a very serious thing I did and I regret it deeply," he said.
Liebowitz, who co-wrote a book, “Down The Rabbit Hole”, about what he believes are failures in the prison system, recounts when the DOC tested for coronavirus.
“They had us while we waited to go get tested, jammed into a stairwell about seven at a time, right on top of each other.”
The DOC said it has made efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and to keep offenders and staff members safe. It acknowledged social distancing is difficult. It has instructed inmates and staff to wear masks at all times and have made efforts to reduce the overall inmate population to slow the spread of the virus. The DOC also established a COVID only unit at the Northern Correctional Unit to keep those sick, separated.
Liebowitz disputed the DOC assertion that Osborn inmates who opted out of testing were treated as if they are asymptomatic carriers of the virus and isolated 14 days.
“That’s flat out not true. There are inmates in this block, right now, who share the phones with us, share the showers with us, and refuse testing.”
On showers: for a short time Liebowitz said his block had to take cold ones outside.
“We were told there was something wrong with the steam, so they were gonna shower us outside.”
They have been taking showers inside again, but Liebowitz said there’s little supervision on keeping them clean.
“There’s a bucket in there, there’s a jar, you know a thing of soap, and there’s a shower brush. But nobody’s inspecting them between each shower to make sure the inmates are actually cleaning them.”
Liebowitz did say the DOC has done some things right.
“I think stopping the visits, stopping anybody unnecessary from coming into the building, giving us social distancing.”
Over the weekend the state settled a pair of lawsuits brought against the DOC by the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) regarding coronavirus.
Among other things, the DOC agreed to follow a system-wide cleaning schedule, ensure inmates have two clean masks at all times, and form a panel that will review the DOC’s ongoing response to coronavirus.
Q&A WITH THE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION
Q: The offender told us that even on a day the DOC was testing offenders for COVID-19, they were “jammed into a stairwell, seven at a time, right on top of each other”. Did this in fact happen? If so, why would the agency do something this counterproductive? What is the agency doing to prevent situations like this from occurring?
A: The Department of Correction continues to take steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and to keep offenders and staff members safe. Acknowledging that social distancing is difficult to maintain within a correctional setting, however, it at present – thanks in part to the ongoing efforts of the CT DOC – there are only 14 offenders, out of 10,300- who are symptomatic positive for the Covid-19 virus.
Q: The offender says the agency continued to do a significant number of interblock transfers right up until Osborn was locked down on 5/15/20 during its Covid19 testing. Is that true? If so, why is that okay, since the agency said March 12 that it was “Limiting nonessential inter-facility transfers of inmates”?
A: The DOC continues to limit nonessential inter-facility transfers. Case in point, the offenders who have tested asymptomatic positive were isolated and monitored within their existing facilities, rather than being transferred to a separate facility.
Q: The offender told us for a time, he and fellow offenders were not allowed to use showers inside Osborn and had to take cold ones in an outdoor area. Is that true? When was this in effect, and at what CI’s? And if so, why did the agency do this? (the offender said the CO’s told him it had something to do with steam and potential Covid19 transmission). How often were they able to shower since, from what we understand, there are fewer outdoor showers than there are indoor ones?
A: As part of the Agency’s early efforts to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, offenders who were symptomatic positives for the virus were not allowed to take showers during their isolation period. They were instead provided with the necessary items to clean themselves in their cells. The reasoning for prohibiting showers was to prevent the virus being transmitted through steam and mist throughout the ventilation system and across the immediate housing area.
As part of the transition period regarding the Department’s showering policy, outdoor showers were offered for approximately a one-week period to medically quarantined offenders. At present, all offenders are allowed to shower within their housing units on a daily basis.
Q: We understand offenders now are allowed to take showers inside again at Osborn. If so, what changed your thinking? We understand that the agency decided to allow it again and the offenders are supposed to clean the showers between each use. Is that being monitored by CO’s or other staff to see if offenders are actually doing the cleaning, and are they properly supplied? What happens punitively if offenders don’t clean the showers? In light of the seriousness of the Covid19 outbreak, has the agency considered having the showers cleaned by staff and not the offenders to ensure it gets done?
A: One thing that has remained certain throughout the pandemic has been the fact that our policies have changed and changed often based on the fluid nature of the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). With that said, we revised our operational plans to include shower opportunities for all populations, including those in quarantine or medical isolation. Our challenge throughout this crisis has been trying to balance health protections, safety and security considerations and human dignity. It is a delicate balance and it requires modifications along the way.
As is always the case, correctional staff members monitor the offenders who clean the facility. Staff also remind offenders that cleaning the facility is in their best interest as it is an important method to minimize the spread of the virus.
Q: The offender told us that at least early on, most of his fellow offenders were not wearing masks, even though they had them. If so, why was this policy not more strongly enforced? He also said correction officers do not always wear their masks. At any time since the Covid19 crisis did the agency require the CO’s to wear masks? If not, why not? And if it did require the use of the masks, did the agency have to discipline any CO’s or offenders for not wearing them, and what was the penalty?
A: Offenders as well as staff have been instructed of the need to wear masks whenever social distancing is not possible. As is the case in the general public individuals sometimes forget to wear masks. As with the public, someone will remind the individual that the need to wear a mask and the individual complies. We are not aware of any offender or staff member having to be formally disciplined regarding not wearing a mask.
Q: The offender (and the CO unions) said the modifications made to deal with Covid19 has created “unrest” inside Osborn. Is this something you are aware of? If so, what incidents occurred that the agency can share? And if so, what measures has the agency taken to counter this issue?
A: The dedicated men and women of the CT DOC have done an amazing job in handling the various issues that the healthcare pandemic has presented. We are always mindful of the facility climate, and made adjustments to our operational plans to maintain as positive an environment as possible under difficult circumstances. To that end, there have been no violent incidents that have occurred within the Osborn facility due to COVID-19 related issues.
With regards to the offenders at Osborn CI who refused testing, following the testing the offender population was separated into three groups; those who tested negative; those who were asymptomatic positives; and those who refused testing. It is important to note that since the mass testing of offenders took place approximately three weeks ago, all but one of the 152 asymptomatic positive offenders did not develop any symptoms during the 14-day isolation period.