A sign marks the entrance to the Northern Correctional Institution in Somers. Cloe Poisson / CTMirror.org
Northern Correctional Institution is now the primary prison that houses incarcerated people who contract COVID-19. Kelan Lyons / CT Mirror

The ACLU of Connecticut has reached an agreement with the state over its COVID-19 lawsuit filed to protect incarcerated people from the virus.

The agreement, which has not yet been accepted by the court, requires the Department of Correction to prioritize elderly and medically vulnerable incarcerated people for release and distribute antiseptic cleaning supplies, soap and personal protective equipment to inmates. It also mandates the department stop imposing punitive measures on people who have tested, or are presumed, positive for the virus, like barring them from showering or using the phones.

Many of the agreement’s terms are practices the department has already adopted. It states that the DOC will test all inmates, which the department started doing last month. It mandates the DOC quarantine newly admitted inmates for two weeks and medically isolate those who have tested positive for the virus or are showing symptoms. It says the department will encourage staff to get tested, and that the commissioner will continue to release inmates at his discretion, prioritizing those who are over age 65 or have underlying health conditions.

“This settlement affirms the approach that the Department of Correction has been taking since the beginning of this pandemic,” Gov. Ned Lamont said in a statement released Sunday. “The department will continue to act in this responsible manner as identified by the court and by this settlement.”

Perhaps the most notable part of the settlement is the creation of a five-member monitoring panel that will review DOC’s ongoing responses to the pandemic. Members of the group will make further recommendations about testing, quarantining the sick and sanitation practices. They will also produce monthly confidential reports for the next three months, and then quarterly reports thereafter.

If the agreement is accepted by the court, the ACLU’s two lawsuits in state and federal courts would be resolved. The terms would be in place until the end of the year.

“People who are incarcerated are people, with human rights, dignity, and healthcare needs. It is critical for the State of Connecticut to protect people who are incarcerated from COVID-19, and it is our hope these new measures will protect people from COVID-19 while also treating them with dignity. It will require our constant vigilance to ensure the DOC keeps the promises it has made in this agreement,” said Dan Barrett, the ACLU’s legal director and an attorney on the case.

Noting that the agreement falls short of the ACLU’s goal of widespread release of inmates to protect them from the virus, David McGuire, the group’s executive director, said the legislature should pass a pandemic response plan so more people are released from state prisons and jails.

“The State of Connecticut must also take every step to prevent new people from being churned into prisons and jails once the courts reopen,” McGuire said. “This pandemic has laid bare that Connecticut prisons and jails, as incarcerated people and their loved ones have been saying for decades, are unhealthy, unsafe places for anyone to be.”

DOC Commissioner Rollin Cook praised the unity and collaboration of the state and ACLU in reaching an agreement.

“This has been an unprecedented time in our country and I am most proud of how our staff and leaders have selflessly performed their essential duties to ensure the health and safety of those entrusted to our care,” Cook said. “Their courageous efforts have saved lives and positively impacted our entire community. In fact, I believe Connecticut will be viewed as the balanced, compassionate and collaborative example to follow during such crisis in the future.”

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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