Each week, Allen arrived in class with his homework completed, eager to tackle lessons ranging from the proper use of punctuation to the Pythagorean theorem. He yearned to earn his GED. At 60 years old, Allen had been incarcerated in a detention center. He desperately wanted to prove his worth, not only to himself, but to his daughter.
I taught in detention centers for several years and I am currently a physician. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, I worry about my former students. I find myself flipping through my mental Rolodex, wondering if Darrin got parole and is home helping his elderly mother get groceries. Or if Jay’s sister was able to send him money to buy extra soap to wash his hands. Will people like Allen be sent home? Or will they have to ride out this pandemic from their cells?
On Tuesday, Connecticut’s Department of Corrections (DOC) released their plans to address COVID-19 concerns within our state’s correctional facilities. Although these strategies appear reasonable, they are not adequate. While measures — like disinfecting each shift and screening employees with temperature checks — are useful, they will not protect the communities of people who are incarcerated. The consequences may be dire.
That’s because people in correctional settings live in poorly ventilated, over-crowded conditions, with limited access to cleaning and hygiene products. These conditions are ideal breeding grounds for highly contagious illnesses, like COVID-19. Unfortunately, people who are incarcerated have little control over access to disinfecting products and no ability to practice social distancing. When one incarcerated person is exposed, a community outbreak may be imminent.
A COVID-19 outbreak within a correctional setting would be especially dangerous. Prison populations contain a significant number of people over the age of 65 and are known to have high rates of chronic medical conditions. The CDC identifies those age 65 and older and those with certain chronic medical conditions as being at higher risk for a serious course of COVID-19. With an aging and chronically ill incarcerated population, a COVID-19 outbreak would be devastating.
Additionally, a COVID-19 hotspot within a correctional setting would increase the workload for an already overburdened correctional staff and hospital system. Once an outbreak begins, many people will become too ill to be treated within a correctional setting and will need hospital transfer. Additional correctional officers will be required to transport and monitor hospitalized patients. This will risk greater coronavirus exposure to correctional staff and further strain healthcare systems that are already at near-capacity.
We cannot delay: the first COVID-19 case has already been identified in a CT DOC employee at Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown. The number of cases is growing in the New York correctional system. The CT Department of Corrections and Board of Pardons and Paroles must take immediate action to safely release as many currently incarcerated people as possible.
What would this safe release look like? Release would be considered for people nearing the end of their sentences, serving sentences for parole violation, and those incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Among those, people identified at high risk of serious COVID-19 illness would be prioritized. Release would be coordinated with community partners to ensure that individuals can access adequate re-entry services. These releases must happen before a correctional facility outbreak occurs. Waiting for an outbreak before expanding release options increases risk for both the incarcerated population and the community to which they return.
Earlier this week, the Governor of New Jersey ordered more than 1,000 incarcerated people to be released. Over 10 other states have also made plans to release people from correctional facilities. However, here in Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont is wasting precious time: “It’s something we’re watching”, he said earlier this week, according to a CT Mirror article.
The current pandemic calls for leadership that steps up to take all necessary actions to save the lives of people in Connecticut. Governor Lamont must act now to reduce Connecticut’s prison population. I urge you to message Governor Lamont. Insist that he implement safe release measures soon, before correctional facility outbreak occurs.
Jessica Chaffkin MD is a physician in New Haven.