Coronavirus Concerns Persist in CT Prisons

The latest Department of Correction data shows an exponential increase in infections

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Calls have continued for the Connecticut Department of Correction to release lower-risk inmates early because of the threat posed by coronavirus.  

On April 12 the agency announced its first inmate death connected to the pandemic.

DOC data has shown an exponential increase in confirmed coronavirus cases inside Connecticut prisons.

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It’s one of the reasons the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut has sued the state to release lower-risk prisoners.  It has said the system is ill-prepared to handle this pandemic from within its walls, and should release of prisoners near the end of their sentences, or who have chronic medical conditions.

ACLU CT attorney Elena Bildner told NBC Connecticut “People on the inside are terrified they feel like they’re sitting ducks just waiting to die in a 100 person dormitory sleeping a few feet apart and don’t have any way to social distance…DOC is not necessarily the bad guy here the bad guy is this virus and part of our suit is saying, the Department of Correction was already 140 staff members, medical staff members short going into this, so they are wildly under-resourced and unprepared.”

Vondres Tolbert’s son Jorden Young has been at the Macdougall-Walker prison for criminal possession of a firearm, and he has a prior robbery conviction.  She said she realizes her son may not be a good release candidate but wishes the state could do more to keep her son safe. 

“That’s my son. I want him to be well. I don’t want him to have spent four years in prison and then god forbid catch the COVID and wind up dying in prison.”

Jorden Young

As of now, the DOC says that is not happening.  The agency says it is taking safety steps to protect staff and inmates and has only been releasing early those pre-approved for parole, halfway houses, home confinements, and other programs.  It calls this “responsible releases”.  In addition, inmates eligible to be released are having those release dates expedited.  Older inmates and those with underlying medical conditions eligible for release are getting moved to the front of the line when possible.  

The agency says its prisons are now down 945 inmates since March 1, something it considers a serious drop in six weeks.  The total prison population as of April 14 stands at 11,464, according to a DOC spokesman.  

The drop in inmates, however, does not account for lower inmate intakes.  The DOC spokesman did not have statistics comparing inmate intakes before the coronavirus came to the state.  At the same time, the agency acknowledged coronavirus induced lower crime rates, plus reduced court hours and sentencings, may be playing a role.

That said, three of the unions representing correction staffers told NBC Connecticut they support the DOC’s policy of responsible releases.   They also agreed with the agency’s plan that as of mid-April, has 108 inmates in an isolation unit for those who have contracted coronavirus.  As of April 14, the DOC added that a total of 45 inmates who had coronavirus have been medically cleared, left Northern, and returned to their appropriate facilities.

At the same time, a number of correction officers have said they still have concerns about a lack of safety equipment made available to them.  Steven Wales, who is the union steward for Local 1565 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told NBC Connecticut, “We are not getting the equipment that is necessary to do our job.  We just don’t have it.”

How Does Connecticut's Response Stack Up to Other States?

The following information was compiled from information provided by the Prison Policy Initiative and the appropriate correctional departments in each state.

What Connecticut is doing:

Regularly scheduled end of sentence dates will remain unchanged and offenders will be released. All community release and discretionary parole releases will also remain unchanged. Precautionary steps are being taken to ensure offenders released to the community do not have any symptoms associated with COVID-19.

What New Jersey is doing:

Under Executive Order No. 124, the NJDOC is granting temporary emergency home medical confinement to certain at-risk inmates who have not committed a serious offense, during the public health emergency. Eligible populations include individuals aged 60 years older; individuals with high-risk medical conditions, based on CDC COVID-19 guidance; individuals who will complete their sentences within the next three months; and individuals who were denied parole within the last year. Each case is to be assessed by an Emergency Medical Review Committee that would make individualized decisions on whether home confinement is a better option for an eligible inmate.

What New York is doing: 

DOCCS was directed to release low-level technical parole violators from local jails. The Department immediately identified individuals under parole supervision who were detained in a local jail pursuant to a warrant resulting from an alleged technical violation, including absconders.

Following an individualized review, the Department began canceling parole warrants where the individual has identified adequate housing is available and the release of the individual does not present an undue risk to public safety. Based on initial estimates, this action could impact up to 1,100 people, including 400 people in New York City and 700 people throughout the rest of the state.

Furthermore, new procedures temporarily modified the issuance of violations to ensure that people who would be subject to release under these protocols are not detained in the first place.

What Massachusetts is doing:

To decrease exposure to COVID-19 within correctional institutions, any individual who is not being held without bail under G. L. c. 276, § 58A, and who has not been charged with an excluded offense (i.e., a violent or serious offense enumerated in Appendix A to this opinion) is entitled to a rebuttable presumption of release. The individual shall be ordered released pending trial on his or her own recognizance, without surety,6 unless an unreasonable danger to the community

What Rhode Island is doing:

The Director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections is submitting weekly lists of people being held on low bail amounts to the public defender's and attorney general's offices for assessment in efforts to have them released. The state DOC is also evaluating people with less than four years on their sentences to see if they can apply "good time" and release them early. Some offenders close to the ends of their sentences have been released based on decisions made by the courts.

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