Hours after protesters leaned on their car horns Monday outside the governor’s residence in a noisy, faux funeral procession to protest the state’s failure to release prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic, Department of Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook appeared beside Gov. Ned Lamont for his daily briefing for the first time since the coronavirus appeared in Connecticut.
Cook said his agency is, in fact, targeting for release older inmates and others considered high risk of dying from the disease, and pointed to a dramatic decline in state’s prison population last month as evidence. As of Monday afternoon, the state’s overall prison population count had dropped by more than 700 prisoners since March 1 — the date Cook called “the onset of COVID-19.”
But he could not say how many of those 700 prisoners were released early due to COVID-19.
“I would not classify our efforts as a mass release,” Cook said Monday. “However, the early focused attention on releases is evident.”
As of Monday afternoon, state officials said 21 incarcerated people had tested positive for COVID-19, as well as 32 prison employees. Officials are awaiting the results of 41 inmates’ tests to determine if they have contracted the virus.
Last week the ACLU of Connecticut filed a lawsuit to force the Department of Correction to immediately reduce the number of people incarcerated in Connecticut prisons and jails, urging officials to release individuals held pretrial on bonds they can’t afford to post, elderly incarcerated people, and those with underlying medical conditions or who are already nearing the end of their sentences.
The governor’s public statements about the state’s early-release policy have — so far, at least — created more confusion than clarity.
On March 24, Lamont said he was not considering an early release policy in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We do have extra capacity [at] our correctional facilities right now,” he said. “We are going to do everything we can to make sure that anybody who may be at risk of being a carrier is segregated or quarantined in a separate area. That’s going to be my priority before we have to think about releasing anybody.”
A week later, as the virus began to spread in prisons and pressure increased from advocates, he seemingly contradicted that message in another daily briefing.
“We continue to release those who are the most nonviolent, and a special focus on those who are older, those who are most at risk, trying to find out where they would be most safe,” he said.
Cook attempted to clarify the state’s policy Monday.
“Prior to any staff or offender COVID-19 cases, my direction was clear: review all eligible and suitable low-risk offenders for release, without circumventing routine protocols that support public safety, as swiftly as possible,” Cook said at Monday’s briefing, “and add a layer of review that will prioritize offenders considered ‘high risk,’ per the CDC guidelines.”
Additionally, Cook said, the DOC is working with the Judicial Branch to analyze the cases of people held pretrial who have not been convicted of a crime, and is sending information to the Board of Pardons and Parole so they can review candidates for release through medical or compassionate parole. However, the executive director of the board told the CT Mirror last month that while they will review cases sent to them by the DOC, each parole decision is based on a number of complex factors — including public safety and victim impact.
“Parole was never intended to, and never will, be used as a release valve for the Department of Correction,” said Richard Sparaco, the executive director of the Board of Pardons and Parole.
Cook has statutory authority to release inmates held pretrial on most misdemeanors or Class D or E felonies. Those inmates would be subject to state supervision and could be ordered to comply with substance abuse programming or participate in an electronic monitoring program. If they violate any of the conditions of release, they can be sent back to a correctional facility.
Cook said his department’s reentry unit is working to ensure those who are released have community supports and won’t add more strain to local resources.
“We will not approve discretionary relief for anyone under my statutory authority without a home plan,” he said.
On Monday, several hours after protesters drove past the governor’s residence in Hartford in a cacophonous demonstration, Lamont told them to call his office instead if they want to talk about their concerns.
“We don’t need the people outside protesting right now,” Lamont said. “I’m trying to keep groups [to] less than five. We have a public health emergency. But if you want to talk about it, you’ve got my number.”
Calls to the governor’s office numbers went unanswered Monday. An automated voice message directs callers to 2-1-1.