Cybulski Correctional Institution in Enfield. Photo courtesy of WNPR

The Department of Correction has indefinitely suspended visits from family members and volunteers, to protect state employees and the roughly 12,300 people incarcerated in its penitentiaries from a potential outbreak of COVID-19.

“We are well aware of the importance of visits to the offender population,” Department of Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook said in a statement.  “This is a difficult, but necessary decision.  We have no choice but to take whatever steps necessary to ensure everyone’s health and safety.”

To make sure the people in its 14 prisons stay connected to their loved ones in the free world, the department reached an agreement with its contracted prison phone service provider so that each inmate can make two free phone calls each week for the next 30 days.

Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises, the New York-based organization leading the Connecting Families campaign to make prison phone calls free, said she appreciated the state acting in good faith to make sure incarcerated people don’t lose touch with their family, but the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need for free phone calls all the time, not just in a period of crisis.

“Two calls is simply not enough. At a time like this when families need to be in regular communication, phone calls simply need to be free,” Tylek said. “People should not be forced to ration contact with their families at a time during a pandemic and public health crisis.”

There have not been any confirmed cases of the virus within a prison or jail in Connecticut. The measures are preventative, to protect an isolated and contained population from a possible outbreak that could prove deadly to the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions.

According to a press release, the department is cleaning and disinfecting its facilities “virtually nonstop.” Inmates are encouraged to wash their hands often for at least 20 seconds and avoid touching their faces or shaking hands with their peers.

The department has also suspended all community inmate work crews, limited the nonessential transfer of people within its facilities, discontinued public prison tours and limited recreation groups to one housing unit at a time.

The visitor and volunteer suspension does not apply to employees who teach high school and GED classes. It does, however, apply to volunteers from local colleges and universities that provide classes to the incarcerated. Erin Corbett is the chief executive officer of Second Chance Educational Alliance, an organization that teaches a slew of college and continuing education classes to about 95 students at MacDougall Correctional Institution and Cybulski Community Reintegration Center.

“Any time there’s a break or interruption in content delivery, there’s always a question of, ‘How are we gonna make up this class time?’ she asked.

Corbett said she’s brainstorming ways to get coursework to her students so they can continue to learn during the visitor suspension. “We need to think innovatively and creatively to make sure students aren’t losing too much time,” she said.

Unlike higher education programs outside prison, Corbett’s students can’t take classes remotely while they wait out the pandemic. Her program will likely shift to a correspondence-based model. Or, as she calls them, “curated learning experiences, so students at least have something to read.”

Corbett said she’s in talks with the department to either mail course work to her students, or drop off boxes full of class materials that DOC officials will screen before allowing the documents inside the secured walls.

“It’ll take a lot of stamps, a lot of copies,” she said, but she reiterated she shares the department’s aim. “Our primary goal is maintaining the health and the wellbeing of our students.”

Kelan is a Report For America Corps Member who covers the intersection of mental health and criminal justice for CT Mirror. Before joining CT Mirror, Kelan was a staff writer for City Weekly, an alt weekly in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a courts reporter for The Bryan-College Station Eagle, in Texas. He is originally from Philadelphia.

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