A state judge issued a ruling late Friday night dismissing the ACLU of Connecticut’s lawsuit to remove incarcerated people from correctional facilities to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

The ACLU filed a state lawsuit in early April seeking to force the state to release inmates from prison or jail who have heightened risk factors, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that make them vulnerable to serious illness or death from COVID-19. The lawsuit also asked the state to submit a plan outlining how it will provide adequate sanitation and social distancing behind bars, diagnose and treat those showing symptoms of the virus, and fund transitional housing for the duration of the pandemic.

The judge’s ruling came hours before the Department of Correction announced a second inmate has died from the virus. The inmate had been incarcerated at Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution and had underlying health conditions. He was 57 years old and had been serving a 22-year sentence for first degree robbery. He passed away at Johnson Memorial Hospital Saturday morning. He spoke to his family one last time before he died.

As of Friday, 639 inmates and prison staff had contracted the virus, a sharp increase from the 24 employees and incarcerated people who had tested positive for the virus as of April 2. More than 200 inmates and staff have been “medically cleared” since contracting the virus.

Sworn statements submitted by inmates in the lawsuit described cramped living spaces, inadequate access to cleaning supplies and a confusing transfer process within correctional facilities that the ACLU argued could exacerbate the spread of the virus. The lawsuit contended the state did not take adequate action to prevent an outbreak and that being behind bars left people exposed to a risk of serious harm.

On April 7 the Department of Correction began moving most inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 to Northern Correctional Institution. They are held in isolation and treated before they are medically cleared and sent back to their original correctional facility.

Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis ruled Friday that the ACLU failed to show the state has acted with “deliberate indifference” to the risks posed by the pandemic.

“To the contrary, the plaintiffs describe the defendants’ conduct in the amended complaint as ‘commendable, but unfortunately insufficient to comply with their constitutional and statutory obligation to ensure the safety of those in their custody,’” Bellis wrote. “Allegations that the defendants’ actions have been or will be ‘insufficient’ do not rise to the level of a conscious disregard of an excessive risk to inmate health or safety.”

Bellis’ ruling notes that the ACLU’s argument is the Department of Correction has not protected those entrusted to its care by releasing more people from correctional facilities to reduce the risk of infection.

“These allegations sound in negligence, not recklessness,” wrote Bellis, noting that recklessness is wanton misconduct that disregards the rights and safety of others, or the consequences of their actions. Because the state’s actions are not reckless, Bellis wrote, the ACLU’s suit has been dismissed.

The governor’s office declined to comment on the dismissal.

“Our hearts go out to the loved ones of incarcerated people, whom the state continues to put in harm’s way from COVID-19. We will not stop fighting, and we are using every tool at our disposal to require Governor Lamont and Commissioner Cook to fulfill their constitutional and moral obligation to protect incarcerated people from COVID-19,” said Dan Barrett, ACLU of Connecticut legal director and an attorney on the case.

The class action federal lawsuit the ACLU filed earlier this week remains ongoing.

Kelan is a Report For America Corps Member who covers the intersection of mental health and criminal justice for CT Mirror. Before joining CT Mirror, Kelan was a staff writer for City Weekly, an alt weekly in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a courts reporter for The Bryan-College Station Eagle, in Texas. He is originally from Philadelphia.

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