During hurricane Katrina incarcerated people were left for dead in Louisiana. Locked in their cells, they watched the water rising around them. Amidst the chaos of the flood, the state and municipal government ignored their cries for help waiting too long to implement an effective response. The water is rising again– but this time, the disaster is a tidal wave of new infections.

The question is not if people in the Connecticut prison system will be infected with COVID-19, the question is when the first case will be detected. The current Covid-19 response plan in place by the Connecticut Department of Corrections (CDOC) is ineffective at best and grossly negligent at worst. In order to best mitigate the harm of an impending outbreak, the Connecticut Department of Corrections (CDOC) and Gov.Ned Lamont must consider immediate measures to decrease rates of incarceration in the state of Connecticut and release those most vulnerable to the devastating effects of Covid-19 in Connecticut prisons.

Even in safer times, prisons are detrimental to public health. Close confinement in prisons coupled with often unsanitary conditions, unnecessary barriers to hygiene products, and limited access to healthcare services increases an individual’s risk of disease acquisition and transmission. A report prepared by the World Health Organization (WHO) identifies a number of factors that complicate effective intervention and make prisons uniquely dangerous hotbeds for disease transmission. Ultimately, the state’s ability to combat this urgent pandemic is dependent on prevention strategies specifically intended to protect its most vulnerable populations. Yet, the current response of the CDOC indicates that, as with Katrina, incarcerated people are being left behind without protection. Connecticut is failing to appropriately prepare for Covid-19, and both free and incarcerated residents will pay the price.

The pandemic response plan put forth by the CDOC is the same plan that it drafted for Influenza A in 2007. CDOC Spokeswoman Karen Martucci recently doubled down on the use of the outdated methods, explaining that “[COVID-19] isn’t new for us. We quarantine for the flu every year.” However, preventing Covid-19 requires different approaches than Influenza A. The disease characteristics differ significantly from one another: recent studies indicate that the new virus is significantly more infectious, can be transmitted by asymptomatic cases, and may even be airborne —meaning tiny droplets in the air or on surfaces could spread disease in the absence of an infectious individual. Additionally, each year many people are vaccinated for seasonal influenza, which reduces the force of infection in the community; with COVID-19, there is no vaccine and no natural immunity to this new pathogen. This means that the potential for spread is far greater than for seasonal flu, where partial herd immunity is in place each year.

There are some prevention methods for Influenza A addressed in the CDOC plan that may help to prevent the transmission of Covid-19 — e.g., provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), hand-washing and sanitizing requirements for prison staff, and improved disease education. However, these methods must be vastly expanded to face the new challenges posed by Covid-19. For instance, surgical masks, which are suggested in the CDOC response plan and protect against Influenza A, do not prevent transmission of airborne Covid-19 droplets.

The supplemental release of an operational response plan by the CDOC specific to Covid-19 does not meaningfully change the fact that their prevention strategy neglects key features of this novel coronavirus. The plan is focused predominantly on two interventions: (1) restricting outside access to prison facilities, and (2) minimizing contact among incarcerated individuals. Yet neither measure will, on its own, prevent transmission. For example, the CDOC states that all delivery personnel coming into contact with the facility will be screened via question-based monitoring (i.e., have you developed symptoms of disease in the last X number of days?). However, such a surveillance mechanism is unlikely to be effective for Covid-19, given that asymptomatic individuals are also infectious. Meanwhile, minimal efforts at social distancing within the facility without appropriate provision of environmental protective measures — such as increased access to sanitizer, soap and adequate ventilation — are unlikely to be sufficient to prevent an outbreak and subsequent disease transmission.

To develop a higher standard of control and care for Covid-19, the CDOC should not use Influenza A to model their response. Tuberculosis (TB) is a far more appropriate model for this outbreak. Unlike Influenza, TB is airborne and nearly as infectious as Covid-19. Additionally, the overall prevalence of TB among incarcerated individuals and staff at correctional facilities is exponentially greater than its prevalence in the population at large. Given the high rate of TB infection among incarcerated individuals, it is a well-studied infectious disease within the prison system.

Perhaps the most important of the preventative measures recommended by the WHO on control of TB in prisons deals with overcrowding. To whatever extent possible, the density of incarcerated individuals must be kept at a minimum. This intervention is not unique to prisons: in the past few days, Connecticut governor Ned Lamont has strongly urged residents to avoid large gatherings and follow CDC guidelines that encourage social distancing, a preventative public health intervention that has been embraced by municipalities, school systems, civil society organizations, and businesses throughout the state.

To be abundantly clear, social distancing within the state prison system should not be equated to solitary confinement or facility-wide lockdowns. Aside from infringing upon the rights of incarcerated individuals, there is limited-to-no epidemiologically sound research to suggest that these measures are effective in curbing the spread of infectious disease within prisons. Moreover, facility-wide lockdowns would simply substitute one public health crisis, Covid-19, with another, the prolonged use of solitary confinement. Instead, in order to address this looming crisis, CDOC should implement Covid-19 targeted response measures and the governor must immediately consider opportunities to dramatically reduce the state’s prison population.

Gov. Ned Lamont enacted both civil preparedness and public health emergencies, a decision that, in part, vests the governor’s office with the responsibility to “take appropriate measures for protecting the health and safety of inmates of state institutions.”(Conn. Gen. Stat. § 28-9-5). We now urge him to fulfill that responsibility by reducing the state’s prison population. Through broad powers delegated to the governor during a civil preparedness or public health emergency, which gives the governor discretion to appropriately revise Connecticut general statutes in order to protect public safety, Gov. Lamont is both empowered and obligated to release prisoners and halt prison population growth.

Through executive discretion already triggered through the declaration of a public emergency or through his power to grant temporary reprieves, the governor should focus on diverting any and all individuals from contact with the justice system. These diversionary measures could include directing the Division of Criminal Justice to divert as many cases as possible that would result in new admissions to the CDOC as well as suspending all non-essential parole meetings and conducting any necessary parole check-ins via phone. The governor could also use his emergency powers to release all medically fragile individuals from prison, all elderly people 60 years or older, all people who are nearing the end of their sentence or are eligible for parole, all people incarcerated for technical violations of parole, and all people in pre-trial detention. Due to the increased volume of returning citizens, the Commissioner of Correction should request all necessary resources from the Governor’s office to temporarily manage reentry services.

For those who remain on the inside, the CDOC should implement environmental controls and respiratory protections on par with the strongest recommendations made by the CDC to prevent the spread of TB. The CDOC should ensure that all facilities are adequately ventilated and should install HEPA air filters where possible; all incarcerated people, symptomatic or not, must be guaranteed free hygiene supplies and receive appropriate and timely access to health services.

If the goal of a criminal justice system is to ensure public safety, the Connecticut state government should address a public health crisis among all populations. As we are coming to terms with the devastating impacts of mass incarceration, we should take note that locking someone up and throwing away the key is not an effective public safety intervention. Likewise, diseases are not contained by prison walls; they are fueled by them. As we’ve seen with TB, an outbreak in a prison risks becoming an outbreak in the surrounding community. When the flood of Covid-19 comes for Connecticut, we want to know that we did everything in our power to protect our most vulnerable communities, and by extension ourselves. Do not let Covid-19 become Katrina in Connecticut.

Noora Reffat is a second year Master of Public Health student in the Epidemiology of Microbial Disease department at the Yale School of Public Health. Joseph Gaylin is a Criminal Justice Fellow at Dwight Hall, Yale’s Center for Social Justice and Public Service. Arvind Venkataraman is a Research Associate in the Immunobiology Department at the Yale School of Medicine, where he works on HSV-1 Vaccine Development.

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10 Comments

  1. Good idea.
    CT should also close more prisons and provide more rehabilitation/work programs instead.
    Locking people in cages won’t heal poverty, brain injury or expunge criminal records to qualify for work/housing.

  2. I can not believe a professional would even suggest such a thing. Though cases a transmission rates are going up a very small percentage. The overall number of cases is not going up dramatically. I state this based on real time data and statistics provided by the CDC.

    Here is a link to the CDC website COVID-19 Tracker ( https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-in-us.html ). If you go to the section titled “States Reporting Cases of COVID-19 to CDC”. There is a drop down menu that looks like this:

    “States. +”

    Click on the plus sign to see current number of reported cases on a state-by-state basis. This is Gospel as it relates to the current growth in transmission. Washington, California, New York and Massachusetts are the Hot Zones. How much and how quickly these numbers change dictates “true level” of severity. This table should be shown with every news report. To not do so stokes the hype.

    1. Don’t be scared . Ya always scared . Covid-19 is not to be taken lightly . If prisons release inmates to prevent a serious outbreak , I’m all for it . A lot of these inmates are wrongfully accused let alone , inside on technical violations from probation or parole . That’s tax dollars going to inmates . Reentry can be so avoided with so much less effort and money . People treat inmates like they are less then human or like animals. Why don’t you look in the mirror and be human and treat others the same way . Human . We all make mistakes , some more then others . No one disserves to die by Covid-19 in prison . Especially not an elderly man woman eligible for parole in weeks or months . I say Lower prison population while we have the opportunity and allow the elderly to be taken care of by their families . At Least that .

      1. Dear Nemessi2060,

        Lets agree to disagree. As it relates to looking in the mirror. When you committed a crime you broke the sanctity of the moral and ethical bond you had with our society. So, I cant imagine, what you see in the mirror is someone devoid of guilt. No one forced you to commit a crime. You did so of your own free will. So, though I do not wish unnecessary harm, or illness on you or any inmate. Until a true threat appears on the doorstep of the prisons, you must stay incarcerated. If I remember correctly. I believe the saying goes something like this, “You do the crime, you do the time!”

  3. I was once an inmate in CT . I was locked in a cell 23 hours a day 6 days a week for 18 months . Just on drug charges . I was wrongfully designated a secretary risk . (SRG) . I say wrongfully because it was based on my affiliation to gang members in my neighborhood . I grew up with them but always was proud I wasn’t in a gang . I still had respect and status in my neighborhood . I wasn’t a gang member . I was a poor homeless kid trying to feed myself . I was 16 in Manson youth Institution . I’m still institutionalized . I was released 20 years ago . I have raised 7 beautiful children . One in college .

    When I hear people scared or worried about inmates being released because it’s the right thing to do . I get upset because I’m one of the kids who got placed in a situation where I needed help not prison . Not 23 hours of solitude a day . That caused a snowball effect that hurt my community and myself . It didn’t help me . It made me angry and ready to commit more crimes . Resentful . Rebellious . I returned soon after my release after my 18 months just like everyone else . Those are your tax dollars hard at work . Since then I’m not sure things have gotten any better because there is still mass incarceration and re entry at alarming rates .
    I totally agree with this article . What happened in Katrina to the prison population was disgusting . So is our mass incarceration policy in this state . It’s time to lead the way once again and do the right thing. Covid-19 or not . This is the opportunity to show CT is ahead of the curve when it comes to outbreaks and human conservation . No matter the situation . We have to be responsible for our community . Release elderly over 60 . All the inmates with non- violent crimes who are back in with technical violations . Sadly that is half the prison population as we know it . If you ask me that’s embarrassing as a community .

    1. Hi Nemesis2060, we welcome your comments but please note that our guidelines require that comments be limited to 1,000 characters. This is truly a thoughtful comment and we are glad to post it, but we will not be able to approve comments that exceed that limit going forward.

  4. Here’s a foolproof plan for reducing rates of incarceration (in CT and elsewhere): people stop committing crimes. Of course, that’s not going to happen. So people will be arrested and they will go to jail. Yes, of course, inmates are people, too, and they are somebody’s loved one. I hope that there is not an outbreak of COVID-19 in our prison system, but wholesale release of criminals (of any age) isn’t the answer. The common-sense step of prohibiting visitors is a good one, along with enhanced health-protecting measures. If it’s good enough for our elderly friends and relatives in nursing homes — who have not committed any crimes and are not a danger to society — then it should be good enough for inmates in our prisons.

  5. I agree with releasing inmates that have minor non violent crimes misdemeanors or not sentenced yet.People that were given very short time to serve less than a year.Release them,that’s overcrowding.The fact of the matter is while there are people that do belong in jail there are people that are sitting in jail and have no clue why.Instead of throwing people in jail and prisons get to know their history where they came from,childhood growing up healthy or abused.Sometimes finding the root cause then working through it and finding ways to make necessary changes and working toward being a better person.There are lots of services they can get set up with to better contain themselves in the community as normal people should.

    1. Wouldn’t it be better if people who have a tough life would seek out those services that could help them, before they commit crimes and end up in prison? There are many, many people in this country who are poor, disadvantaged, have alcoholics and/or drug addicts as parents, and all manner of other troubles, who do not turn to crime.

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