Attorneys from a Stamford law firm, Quinnipiac University School of Law and Yale Law School filed a class action federal lawsuit Monday night to force authorities to take emergency measures to protect the more than 1,000 men and women incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury.

“Public health experts uniformly agree that prisons are hot spots for the spread of COVID-19 that require prison officials to take swift action to protect the lives of those in their custody,” said Sarah Russell, a professor at Quinnipiac University and one of the lawyers on the case. “FCI Danbury has completely disregarded these warnings, placing incarcerated people at an unbearable and unconstitutional risk of contracting the disease.”

The lawsuit — brought by the law firm of Silver Golub & Teitell LLP, the Civil Justice Clinic at Quinnipiac University School of Law, and the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School — alleges the Bureau of Prisons and Danbury prison officials are aware of the dangers posed by COVID-19 but have failed to take action to protect those in their custody.

Due to the “unlawful and unconstitutional confinement,” the suit’s petitioners are seeking an emergency order to immediately transfer the prison’s most medically vulnerable inmates to home confinement, and the implementation of social distancing and hygiene measures for those who remain incarcerated, to lower the risk of spreading the virus.

The Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on the pending case.

Attorney General William Barr ordered the expedited release of inmates from the low-security Danbury penitentiary to home confinement, but it is unclear how many incarcerated people have been sent home to serve out their sentence. More than 40 inmates and 30 staff have contracted the virus, making it one of the largest outbreaks in the federal prison system.

The case features four named incarcerated plaintiffs, all of whom have underlying medical conditions that, the suit alleges, put them at risk of death if they contract COVID-19: Dianthe Martinez-Brooks, a 50-year-old woman who suffers from lupus, asthma and hypertension; Rejeanne Collier, a 64-year-old woman who also suffers from lupus, Hepatitis C and hypertension, and who has been treated for cancer since becoming incarcerated; Jackie Madore, a 50-year-old woman who has hypertension, hypothyroidism and Hepatis C; and Kenneth Cassidy, a 54-year-old man who has suffered three heart attacks and suffers from chronic asthma. None of the plaintiffs are Connecticut residents.

Because of each inmate’s medical conditions, the suit says, they each face a “grave risk” that they will “not make it out of FCI Danbury alive or will become terribly ill.”

The lawsuit alleges officials have been “deliberately indifferent to the known serious medical needs” of the four plaintiffs. Officials routinely deny inmates have fevers by attributing high temperatures to medical equipment or operator error, or by requiring sick inmates to drink a glass of ice water before testing them again. Even when medical staff confirm the fever, inmates are often sent back to their units and told to take Tylenol.

Those incarcerated at the prison live in close quarters, with 100 people sleeping beside each other in bunk beds, sharing communal bathrooms and dining areas. Many individuals have high fevers or difficulty breathing, the lawsuit says, but have not been tested or removed from crowded living spaces.

Unlike many prisons in the federal system, the suit says, Danbury does not have a separate medical unit or facility for sick inmates. There is no space where someone who is ill can recover, isolated from their peers. And, the correctional facility has a “woefully inadequate” number of nasal swab COVID-19 test kits, requiring prison staff to ration them and refuse testing inmates exhibiting symptoms of the virus.

Failure to isolate sick inmates and staff from the healthy population creates a serious risk for others, the class action lawsuit states. The lawsuit also alleges that those who complain of symptoms of COVID-19 are unable to immediately obtain a medical exam, are not tested for the virus and are returned to the general population until the symptoms worsen. Instead, the lawsuit says, prison staff tell the sick they “did the crime” and should “do the time,” and that the virus is not “going to get you out of prison.”

“The only effective way to minimize the potential devastation from COVID-19 in BOP facilities generally and at FCI Danbury in particular is to downsize immediately the incarcerated population and, for the prisoners who remain at the institution, to undertake aggressively the detection, prevention, and treatment measures that public health and medical experts have recommended, including effective social distancing,” the lawsuit says. “These measures are not possible in prisons, like FCI Danbury, without substantial reductions in the prisoner population.”

This story was updated Thursday to note the names of the organizations that brought the suit and reflect that the Bureau of Prisons declined to comment. 

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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