The coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on the state prison system.
In one facility so far, a third of the inmates tested positive for coronavirus, but were asymptomatic, as the Department of Correction starts widespread testing.
At least 369 staff members, agency-wide, have also tested positive. The agency said more than 300 of those have returned to work.
NBC Connecticut Investigates has taken a deeper look at some of the pressing issues with coronavirus in our prisons, with the help of hundreds of correctional employees who responded to our exclusive survey.
Some 300-plus correction officers responded to a survey with 10 questions, that we conducted between April 24 and May 4.”
Correction officer concerns over the spread of coronavirus in Department of Correction facilities was almost off the charts.
On a scale of one to five, nearly 83% of correction officers that responded to our survey rated their concern a five, the highest option.
This did not surprise Collin Provost, president of Local 391 CT State Prison Employees Union.
“One of the major concerns that our members have is you know, ‘I didn’t sign up for a pandemic, I signed up to do hazardous duty and I knew what that meant but it didn’t mean I’d bring something home to the family that could kill them.’”
Some correction officers told us the predominant thought when they go to work each day is…”I am going to be exposed to the virus and not know and bring it home to my family and expose them?”
While the DOC has made efforts to separate out inmates that have tested positive or have symptoms to a separate facility, many survey respondents said they still think the DOC has not implemented enough protections for employees. Their biggest concern is not enough personal protection equipment, or PPE, little or no hand sanitizer, and the need for “…more Lysol and disinfectant supplies.”
“There should have been a lot more screaming from the agency and the leaders from the agency saying what we need, when we needed it, and we needed it yesterday,” Provost said.
Correction officers said it was almost a month into the crisis when the DOC got them PPE in the form of N95 masks, which provides some level of protection from coronavirus. Concerns remain – they said “currently we’re only getting one a week”…and “We have to reuse N95 masks”.
“We have to make sure there’s more available than just one a week," Provost said.
The DOC did not comment on camera. It released a statement saying in part, “The Department of Correction has placed a strong focus on the procurement of critical PPE to protect both employees and the population under our supervision. All fourteen correctional facilities have an inventory of N95, KN95, surgical and cloth masks with a policy associated with the use of each. Weekly distributions take place at each facility for all employees regardless of their job classification. The type of mask issued is contingent upon the number of positive COVID-19 cases on record at any location, including employees and inmates. A facility experiencing a high number of positive cases is issued the highest level of protection mask - N95. Also, N95 masks are issued to all staff working in a quarantine or medical isolation unit at any location across the agency.”
The DOC went on to say it shares staff member’s frustrations about getting PPE, adding “ …the agency has and continues to do everything possible to procure as much PPE’s as necessary to the department’s staff members”, and “the commissioner remains optimistic as the state of Connecticut has recently secured the delivery of large quantities of PPEs," though the DOC did not say if it will get any of those, or how much.
PPE supplies remain hard to come by, and while the correction officers union has started supplying masks for its members on its own, some correction officers in the survey have supported the agency’s effort so far, one saying….”I truly feel what the department has done is adequate….."
Full Statement from the Department of Correction
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic the Department of Correction has taken numerous steps to minimize the spread of the novel coronavirus and to protect both staff as well as offenders from this insidious virus. Some of the actions taken include, but are not limited to:
- The suspension of social visits.
- Suspended volunteer and vendor access.
- Placed a strong focus on reviewing all eligible and suitable offenders for release and creating a prioritization for those considered high-risk if exposed to COVID-19.
- The modification of movement and creation of a three-phase operational plan that could be implemented at any facility.
- Initiated an intake screening for all offenders including a 14-day separation at the jails to monitor anyone coming from the street for COVID signs and symptoms before allowing access to the general population.
- Initiated a screening and temperature check for all employees at the 14 correctional facilities and at each of the five parole district offices.
- Limited inter-facility transfers to essential transfers only.
- Centralized positive COVID-19 offenders at one location – the Medical Isolation Unit within the Northern Correctional Institution. By doing so, preserving valuable statewide PPE inventory and consolidating nursing care services.
- Distributed masks to all facility locations - cloth masks being produced internally by offender industry workers, surgical masks, KN95 masks and N95 masks, with a corresponding policy for the proper use of each.
- Reduced dormitory population numbers to support social distancing.
- Created a website page specific to COVID-19 with daily postings of data points, pandemic plans, press releases and memos for staff, offenders and family members.
- Centralization of community release COVID positive patients to one location – Cochegan House on the grounds of the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center.
- In-line with Governor Lamont’s executive order – we have mandated that both employees and offenders wear masks when social distancing cannot be achieved.
- Introduced the use of newly acquired cleaning technology called a Power Breezer to disinfect large areas within the facilities. We are targeting locations identified as “hot spots” for the virus.
Additional information regarding the availability of PPEs: The Department of Correction has placed a strong focus on the procurement of critical PPE to protect both employees and the population under our supervision. All fourteen correctional facilities have an inventory of N95, KN95, surgical and cloth masks with a policy associated with the use of each. Weekly distributions take place at each facility for all employees regardless of their job classification. The type of mask issued is contingent upon the number of positive COVID-19 cases on record at any location, including employees and inmates. A facility experiencing a high number of positive cases is issued the highest level of protection mask - N95. Also, N95 masks are issued to all staff working in a quarantine or medical isolation unit at any location across the agency.
In addition to the efforts made to provide staff with adequate supplies of PPEs, Commissioner Cook encouraged staff to wear their own personal masks in the event one was not available from the agency.
Commissioner Cook certainly understands, and shares staff member’s frustrations regarding the challenges associated with procuring PPEs in the midst of a pandemic and worldwide shortage of protective gear. Under the Commissioner’s direction, the Agency has and continues to do everything possible to procure as much PPEs as necessary to the department’s staff members.
The Commissioner remains optimistic as the State of Connecticut has recently secured the delivery of large quantities of PPEs. The Department remains dedicated to ensuring that our correctional professionals have the necessary tools and resources available to them to effectively perform their duties safely and in good health.
“Despite the national shortage of personal protection equipment (PPE), it has been my priority to have the proper tools to fight this unforgiving virus,” said Commissioner Rollin Cook. “I will continue to work to procure more PPEs for our unsung heroes of the pandemic. The frontline healthcare and correctional employees cannot be thanked enough for their dedication and valiant efforts to keep the offenders and the citizens of Connecticut safe.”