Despite a ‘business as usual’ approach, COVID-19 is shrinking CT’s incarcerated population
Christopher Farrow isn’t supposed to be in jail right now. The 32-year-old pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation for second-degree threatening. But he’s been locked up at the New Haven Correctional Center on a technicality until an April 14 hearing.
For Farrow, who has asthma, this delay could mean the difference between life and death if he becomes infected with the COVID-19 coronavirus behind bars. Asthma is one of the underlying conditions that can make the coronavirus, which attacks the lungs, especially dangerous.
“My day consists of wondering whether or not there’s going to be an outbreak in the facility,” Farrow told the CT Mirror over a patchy phone call from within the New Haven Correctional Center, days before a jail employee tested positive for the virus. “I’m basically a nervous wreck.”
Inmates like Farrow, and those with family members incarcerated in the state’s prisons or jails, worry they are sitting ducks as the coronavirus creeps its way toward the state’s incarcerated population. Elderly inmates are particularly vulnerable to complications from COVID-19, as are those with underlying medical conditions.
“I’m living a nightmare. I don’t sleep much. I’m constantly worried,” said Amanda Svenningsen, whose 44-year-old husband has been locked up at MacDougall Correctional Institution since 2019 for assaulting a police officer. She worries his anemia and high blood pressure make him more susceptible to the virus. Their children ask her, “Is he gonna get sick? Is he gonna come home?”
Their concern isn’t misplaced: Last week, Gov. Ned Lamont rejected the idea of releasing inmates near the end of their sentences or at particular risk of infection, despite increasing pressure from families and advocates to do so. Monday, the state announced a 32-year-old inmate at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Uncasville has tested positive for the disease.
The governor’s public statements aside, however, the incarcerated population has decreased dramatically this month – there were 496 fewer people in Connecticut correctional facilities on March 29 than March 1. In comparison, the average population dip in the same month from 2011 to 2019 was only 105.
But this didn’t happen as a result of a clearly articulated plan or executive order from Lamont.
Instead, it appears to be the result of Connecticut’s bifurcated system of delivering justice, with overlapping authorities, agencies and governmental branches all responsible for different segments of the incarcerated population.
“My day consists of wondering whether or not there’s going to be an outbreak in the facility. I’m basically a nervous wreck.”
“Connecticut is a system where the hands on the system of criminal justice are varied,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat and co-chair of the state’s Judiciary Committee, who has called on the Department of Correction to produce a plan for releasing prisoners to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. “You can’t go to one person and say, ‘Hey, we have an emergency, take care of this.'”
This means the state is releasing people at different points in the process despite Lamont’s public statements. It also means there are many people, like Farrow, who are caught between multiple systems. His case has been resolved but he remains in jail, waiting for the Board of Pardons and Parole to conduct his revocation hearing.
It also means it’s harder for Connecticut to release large portions of its incarcerated population, as other states have done to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
A quiet winnowing
These disparate agencies and departments say there is no plan afoot to engineer a mass reduction in the incarcerated population, claiming, rather, the releases are business as usual. However, small nods here and there to an unprecedented environment have added up to a quiet coronavirus exodus from behind bars.
Around three-fourths of the population decline since March 1 is from the sentenced population, meaning the share of people convicted of crimes is shrinking among the state’s incarcerated population.
“This is not a mass release. This is our routine process,” said Karen Martucci, DOC spokeswoman. “The balancing act is balancing public health and public safety considerations.”
Such considerations mean the state is individually assessing those potentially eligible for release. But COVID-19 could be driving an increase in the population decline, Martucci said. About 25 people who initially did not meet all the qualifications for transitional supervision, which allows some people to be released from a correctional facility to a community correction program, found someone this month willing to sponsor them upon release.
Perhaps, Martucci suggested, there is an increased willingness among people on the outside to serve as sponsors to spare people from having to weather a COVID-19 outbreak behind bars.
Some of the month’s population decline is likely from the “front-end” of the system, officials say. Sentencing hearings have been suspended since mid-March, said Marc Pelka, Lamont’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning, which would naturally lessen the sentenced population as those convicted of crimes are released after they’ve done their time.
Additionally, Pelka said, the chief state’s attorney, the chief public defender, the Judicial Branch’s Court Support Services Division and the DOC are working collaboratively to identify people who are locked up, but not convicted of a crime, who can be released without threatening public safety.
Further reductions in the incarcerated population are still necessary, said Winfield. Referencing federal guidelines on social distancing, Winfield said the state’s correctional facilities should have as few people as possible.
“Connecticut is a system where the hands on the system of criminal justice are varied.”
Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven
Farrow has his own cell at New Haven Correctional Center. But he still shares a common area with 16 other men. Each time he eats, goes for a walk or takes a shower, he has to walk through that room, breathing the same air in a poorly ventilated space, he said.
“Every day, regardless of how much I spend in my cell, at least half of my time of the day I have to be around other individuals,” Farrow said. “The social distancing guidelines that they put in place are irrelevant in here.”
Lack of leadership
Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, stands with Winfield and advocates who have called on authorities to do more to decrease the prison population. But he recognizes that simply releasing people en masse would strain existing community resources in the best of times, let alone in a public health emergency where unemployment runs rampant.
“It’s not as simple as waving a magic wand,” Stafstrom said. “The general social support framework is rattled for those who are already looking for help and support, let alone those who are newly released from incarceration.”
The lack of clear leadership hasn’t helped mitigate these fears. Without a plan, commissioners could be left in the dark as to what they should be doing, said Melvin Medina, the ACLU of Connecticut’s public policy and advocacy director.
“You don’t have a governor that’s out in front on the bully pulpit saying, ‘We need to release people, and this is how we’re giving to get it done,'” Medina said. “Until we hear the governor champion the need to protect vulnerable people in prison, commissioners won’t have clear direction about how to respond to this public health emergency, and ultimately inaction and non-response will result in lost lives.”
“You don’t have a governor that’s out in front on the bully pulpit saying, ‘We need to release people, and this is how we’re giving to get it done.'”
Policy Director, the ACLU of Connecticut
Winfield said Lamont’s job is to be a leader and guide Connecticut through this public health emergency.
“I see his role as signaling where we should be going. If the governor leads, others will follow,” he said. “What the governor thinks right now has an outsized role in everything that’s going to happen.”
Lamont has broad powers, should he choose to exercise them, thanks to the March 10 declaration of a Public Health Emergency. He can modify or suspend any state statute or regulation if he finds the policy conflicts with furthering public health in prisons or schools.
The state constitution also gives him the authority to grant reprieves to those who have been convicted of a crime. A reprieve essentially gives him the ability to issue a furlough so people can temporarily leave prison. The governor can make reprieves last as short as he wants, but they can last no longer than the end of the next legislative session.
But if he is unwilling to act, there are others who can lower the incarcerated population.
“We still are continuing with business as usual during the pandemic,” said Richard Sparaco, the executive director of the Board of Pardons and Parole, the independent agency that holds Farrows’ fate in its hands. BOPP has the power to grant sentence commutations, release people incarcerated for parole violations and expedite consideration of prisoners for parole.
Sparaco noted that BOPP could schedule more hearings in the future to potentially increase the number of people granted parole and that the DOC has asked his agency to consider holding future hearings for “compassionate parole,” which would allow individuals to be released who are “physically incapable of presenting a danger to society,” according to statute.
“We’re prepared to review some of those cases if they’re referred to us by the department,” Sparaco said, noting that each parole decision is based on a number of complex factors including public safety and victim impact. It is not, however, a way to let people out of prison en masse, Sparaco said.
“Parole was never intended to, and never will be, used as a release valve for the Department of Correction,” he said.
Unlike other states where the governor has the power to issue commutations, it is the BOPP, not Lamont, that has the power to reduce an incarcerated person’s sentence. However, Sparaco said, the board is not currently taking applications for sentence commutations. He expects the application process to be back online before the end of the year.
Sparaco said it is not his department’s responsibility to help the DOC lower its population during a crisis. Instead, they make evidence-based decisions to determine whether people should be granted parole and, eventually, when the process is up and running again, commutation.
“We are not an agency whose goal is to get people out of prison,” he said. “It is to determine who can be released from prison.”
BOPP isn’t the only organization with the potential power to help reduce the population behind bars.
State statute allows DOC Commissioner Rollin Cook to release inmates held pretrial on most misdemeanors or a Class D or E felony but there would be conditions on their release. They could be ordered to comply with substance abuse programming or participate in an electronic monitoring program. Anyone let out of jail would remain in Cook’s custody and supervised by the department during the period they’re released. If they violate any of the terms of their release, they can be sent back to a correctional facility.
Other statutes allow Cook to release certain inmates to home confinement or on a temporary furlough, transfer inmates from prison to a work or education release program, and send certain inmates to nursing homes under contract with the state, though with state nursing homes becoming COVID-19 hotspots, that option appears unlikely.
The Judicial Branch’s judges, meanwhile, can perform sentence modifications, in some instances without the consent of a prosecutor, to reduce someone’s sentence, or order them released from prison, sometimes with certain supervisory requirements. They also can modify bonds so that people aren’t locked up pretrial.
In the meantime, the 11,917 people incarcerated in Connecticut as of March 30 are waiting out the pandemic locked in small, confined spaces, and 2,940 of them were not convicted of a crime: they were charged but couldn’t afford bail. Another 828 people were serving sentences of less than a year for lower-level crimes.
“It’s only a matter of time, man, before the death rate goes up,” Farrow said, as he prepared to walk through the common area back to his cell. “We’re risking people’s lives, man, for almost next to nothing.”
Help us report.
Sign up for CT Mirror's free daily news summary.
Free to Read. Not Free to Produce.
The Connecticut Mirror is a nonprofit newsroom. 90% of our revenue comes from people like you. If you value our reporting please consider making a donation. You'll enjoy reading CT Mirror even more knowing you helped make it happen.YES, I'LL DONATE TODAY