This story was updated at 1:32 p.m. with a comment from the Lamont administration.
The ACLU of Connecticut has filed a lawsuit to force Gov. Ned Lamont and Department of Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook to reduce the number of people incarcerated in Connecticut prisons and jails.
“People who are incarcerated in Connecticut are in imminent danger from COVID-19. The longer Connecticut fails to act to protect them, the closer our state comes to a deadly and unconstitutional disaster,” said Dan Barrett, the ACLU of Connecticut’s legal director and an attorney on the case. “Connecticut’s courts did not sentence people to suffer and potentially die from a pandemic.”
The lawsuit is filed on behalf of the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and four incarcerated men, each of whom is either elderly, nearing the end of their sentence, currently being held pretrial on bond or has underlying medical conditions.
As of Friday morning, eight incarcerated people and 16 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 in Connecticut prisons. Five of the inmates live in the Cybulski building of the Willard-Correctional Institution, a lower security prison in Enfield that holds people who pose a low risk to the community and prepares them to reintegrate into society once they’re released. The entire facility is now on lockdown, to prevent the spread of the virus.
“Once the virus comes in, it’s going to spread like wildfire,” Anthony Johnson, a prisoner at Willard-Cybulski and one of the plaintiffs, says in the complaint.
Those incarcerated in the building where Johnson is held sleep in dormitory-style housing, the suit states, making it impossible to practice social distancing. Johnson’s dormitory has 100 men in it. Last week Lamont announced a ban on gatherings of more than five people.
According to figures maintained by Yale Law School’s Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic and the Challenging Mass Incarceration Clinic, there were 364 people age 65 or older incarcerated in Connecticut correctional institutions as of March 28. Elderly inmates are particularly vulnerable to a COVID-19 outbreak, as the risk of death increases with age.
The pandemic appears to be shrinking the state’s incarcerated population. There were 524 fewer people behind bars on March 31 than March 1. But Melvin Medina, the ACLU of Connecticut’s public policy and advocacy director, told the CT Mirror in a previous story that Lamont must publicly articulate a clear plan to reduce the incarcerated population and empower different state agencies to work together to ensure people are not simply released to homelessness and strain community resources.
“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.”
The lawsuit asks the court to order Lamont and Cook to immediately release people who are vulnerable to serious illness if they contracted COVID-19 who are being held pretrial on low bond amounts or solely for technical violations of probation or parole. The lawsuit also asks the governor to release those who are eligible for home confinement or supervised release or within six months of the end of their sentence.
Additionally, the ACLU asks the court to require Lamont and Cook to submit a plan to provide hygiene, social distancing, diagnoses and treatment for those who remain behind bars, approve residential placements within a week for those who eligible for release, and fund transitional housing for those who would otherwise be released to homelessness.
Richard Cho, the CEO of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, said the state has made available $150,000 to put end-of-sentence inmates up in a hotel or provide them with rapid rehousing services. He previously told the Mirror that amount is “a drop in the bucket compared to what’s coming down the pike.”
Each month, the Department of Correction releases about 50 people from prison or jail who have reached the end of their sentence and do not have a home.
Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat and chair of the Judiciary Committee , said there has been a lot of public pressure to get officials to explain how they plan to protect the 11,784 people incarcerated in Connecticut from a COVID-19 outbreak behind bars. He said the ACLU’s suit was not unexpected.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all there’s a lawsuit. For weeks now advocates, legislators and organizations have been asking questions” he said. “At some point one would expect they would use the legal system to find out the answers to the questions they’ve been posing and to try and protect the rights of people in our prisons.”
In a statement, Max Reiss, Lamont’s spokesperson, said the administration is reviewing the lawsuit and will not comment on pending litigation.
“All measures taken during this public health emergency have been to maximize public health outcomes wherever possible, especially inside our correctional institutions in the interests of both staff and incarcerated individuals,” he said.