The Department of Correction’s plan of moving prisoners with COVID-19 to Northern Correctional Institution is nothing short of barbaric. DOC claims that Northern is ideal for, among other reasons, the cells have solid metal doors that will prevent the virus from spreading. In fact, those solid metal doors are among one of the chief reasons that the plan violates the civil and human rights of those prisoners.
In August, 2019, Judge Stefan Underhill ruled that the conditions of confinement at Northern violate the Constitution. In particular, one of the allegations in the underlying complaint in that action were that “plumbing problems are endemic at Northern; wastewater and fecal matter regularly back up into adjacent cells, causing the entire unit to smell strongly of feces. … On multiple occasions, (his) genitals were submerged in his neighbor’s wastewater and fecal matter because another inmate had flushed the adjacent cell’s toilet while (he) was using the toilet in his cell.”
These are hardly conditions that are conducive to treating individuals who are ill.
Additionally, on February 28, 2020, Nils Melzer, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, issued a report that held that “The DOC appears to routinely resort to repressive measures, such as prolonged or indefinite isolation, excessive use of in-cell restraints and needlessly intrusive strip searches….There seems to be a State-sanctioned policy aimed at purposefully inflicting severe pain or suffering, physical or mental, which may well amount to torture.” This is where those who are especially vulnerable are now being placed.
COVID-19 disproportionally affects the elderly and the disabled. Imagine being an elderly or disabled prisoner facing a life threatening illness and now being placed into these overwhelmingly oppressive conditions.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, in its lawsuit challenging this place, has made reasonable recommendations to stop the inevitable spread of COVID-19 in the prison system. Additionally, Stop Solitary Connecticut has made recommendations in their White Paper on COVID-19.
“Decarceration is the only public health intervention that can realistically de-densify prisons, promote effective social distancing, and improve prison conditions. Failure to decarcerate will quickly overwhelm the CDOC’s healthcare capacity, spark a humanitarian crisis characterized by indiscriminate solitary confinement, and inundate Connecticut’s healthcare system due to medical transfers.
Releases should not be determined by class of conviction; instead decarceration should begin with the lowest hanging fruit, including the approximately 2,416 people with less than a year left on their sentence, the 1,556 people in prison for technical violations, the estimated 5,314 people who are parole eligible, and the 3,089 people who are unsentenced. Releases must be broad enough to substantially and rapidly reduce the prison population. “
I urge Gov. Ned Lamont to accept those recommendations for the safety of the prisoners and those DOC staff who are also at risk. To fail to take those steps will not halt the spread of COVID-19 and will result in placing those prisoners at increased risk of serious mental health issues as a result of this torture.
Nancy B. Alisberg is a member of the Stop Solitary Connecticut Steering committee.