Northern Correctional Institution, in Somers, will close by July 1. Kelan Lyons / CT Mirror
Protestors carry signs during a protest in front of Northern Correctional Institution in Somers demanding the release of prisoners at risk of infection from the Covid-19 pandemic. The protest was one in a series staged the week of April 13 by prison advocates and family members of incarcerated people at several prisons in the state. Northern was recently designated as a place to quarantine infected prisoners. Cloe Poisson /

Officials will test all people incarcerated in state prisons and jails, as well as those in state-run inpatient psychiatric facilities, for COVID-19 as part of Connecticut’s screening of vulnerable and high-risk groups.

The state will also test all frontline staff at corrections facilities and Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services psychiatric hospitals.

“We want to get all of them tested in the ramp-up phase, which starts next week,” said Max Reiss, Gov. Ned Lamont’s spokesperson. “Whether you’re in a DMHAS facility or in a hospital, in a health care facility, or nursing home, or corrections facility, we want to have the best data possible regarding the spread and regarding transmission.”

Reiss said the goal is to test all inmates, patients in psychiatric hospitals, and Department of Correction DMHAS frontline staff by the end of June.

Connecticut’s prison population has fallen dramatically since March 1. There were 1,632 fewer people behind bars on May 8 than the first day of March.

As of May 7, 484 inmates and 361 staff members had tested positive for COVID-19. More than 210 employees and 345 incarcerated people had been medically cleared and recovered. Six incarcerated people have died.

Officials at correctional facilities in Ohio and Pennsylvania found that the outbreaks among their incarcerated populations were much higher than previously thought after they tested inmates en masse.

“The more tests you do, the more positives you’re going to get,” Reiss said. “At the beginning, we were testing 20 people a day, then 60 people a day. And now we have much better data but still, we’re falling way short because we know there are segments of the population, both in congregate facilities and out in the public, that aren’t getting tested.”

Though the populations are different, there are several factors shared by many incarcerated people and patients in state-run psychiatric facilities.

“In the middle of a pandemic the way they are most similar is they are both in living conditions that are congregate settings where it is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain social distancing,” said Kathy Flaherty, executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, Inc., which recently sued the state to protect patients at Whiting Forensic and Connecticut Valley Hospitals from COVID-19. “The other way they’re similar is there are people in Department of Correction who have been incarcerated for behaviors that derive from their disability because we’ve criminalized a lot of those things, and chose to punish people and incarcerate them rather than provide treatment in the community.”

DMHAS operates more than 760 mental health and substance use beds and employs approximately 3,300 people throughout the state-operated service system.

As of May 5, 60 patients and 69 staff at DMHAS facilities had tested positive for the virus.

“Testing of all patients and all staff on all shifts, regardless of symptoms, is the only way [DMHAS]  will effectively be able to get a handle on what’s going on in the inpatient facilities, where it is difficult to maintain the social distancing that is keeping so many of us safe in our homes,” said Flaherty. 

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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