This piece was updated to reflect the greater number of inmates who objected to the proposed settlement.
Bennie Gray Jr. wrote a letter to the Yale Prison Education Initiative on April 24 about how the pandemic has affected the quality of life at Corrigan Correctional Center. Shortly thereafter, he was placed in the COVID-19 quarantine unit, despite two negative test results.
“After 14 days of inhaling COVID-19 aerosols, being housed with no shower, no way to clean my cell, and no phone privileges, I was released back to population only to fall ill days later from the exposure period I was in the COVID-19 quarantine unit,” he said, calculating that he had been quarantined for a total of 28 days. He said he was isolated “to shut me up,” so his concerns about the conditions of his confinement wouldn’t make their way beyond the prison’s thick walls and barbed wire fences.
Gray recounted the experience in a court document filed in response to the proposed agreement between the state and the ACLU of Connecticut to resolve a class-action lawsuit about the way the incarcerated population here has been treated during the pandemic.
Every inmate in Department of Correction facilities received a two-page document in June informing them of the settlement’s terms. They were given until July 13 to submit objections or comments. About 75 of Connecticut’s approximately 9,800 inmates had responded as of mid-afternoon on Tuesday. Later that day, the ACLU filed a summary of objections they received from incarcerated members of the class action, bringing the total number of inmates who objected to the settlement to about 400.
“Given the varying time it takes for mail to be received from incarcerated people, class counsel expect to receive additional responses,” the ACLU wrote in the court filing.
A federal judge will decide whether to accept the agreement shortly after a July 20 hearing.
For the most part, the settlement as it stands now wouldn’t require big changes in DOC operations. It mandates increased medical monitoring for people who test positive for coronavirus, and that facilities make their best effort to return people quarantined for COVID-19 to their prior housing, jobs and programs. The DOC would also have to provide inmates cleaning materials and personal protective equipment.
Additionally, the settlement would require the agency to: provide a minimum level of daily cleaning, allow people to shower at least every other day and fast-track elderly or medically vulnerable inmates for release. And it would create of a five-member panel to monitor compliance. In a previous version of the settlement, panel reports would be sealed, but an amended agreement filed on June 26 made them public.
But Gray said the agreement does not do enough to protect inmates from being quarantined as punishment. He has not been given a written explanation as to why he was put in quarantine in early May, and he said in his written response that the settlement should require the DOC to provide incident reports that explain why they placed inmates in quarantine.
Dwayne Johnson, Gray’s cell mate, agreed. Johnson was also sent to Corrigan’s quarantine unit after officials intercepted Gray’s letter to Yale, he claimed in his objection. Johnson wound up contracting the virus, and was sent to Northern Correctional Institution, the state’s most secure prison, that has a unit specifically designated for inmates who tested positive for the virus. Currently there is only one symptomatic inmate at Northern, according to the DOC.
“I became severely ill and extremely weak during my time at Northern C.I.,” Johnson said. “Honestly, I thought I was going to die.”
Inmates want more releases in the settlement
Anwar Shakir, 45, is an inmate at Brooklyn Correctional Institution. It has dormitory-style housing units that make social distancing virtually impossible.
Shakir said in his written objection to that settlement that the agreement did not address that the DOC’s current pandemic plan inflicts punishment that is disproportionate to the crimes for which inmates were convicted, unless that inmate was sentenced to the death penalty. But “even that statute has been abolished in the state of Connecticut,” he wrote.
Despite an executive order that requires corrections officers to wear masks when social distancing is not possible, Shakir said staff still refuse to wear personal protective equipment, potentially spreading the virus.
Shakir called for an agreement that would release inmates who have served half or three quarters of their sentence, as well as those with underlying medical conditions or who have a credible claim of innocence pending that could reverse their conviction.
Expanding the terms of release was a common sentiment among those who responded to the settlement agreement.
Shawn Robinson, 50, an inmate at Northern Correctional Institution, said officials should prioritize releasing those who have served at least 30 years and have not been convicted of murder or a sexual offense. He also said inmates age 50 or older or have underlying medical conditions should be “fast tracked” for release. About one in four people held at state correctional facilities were 46 or older as of July 1.
Robinson also suggested offering to pay inmates in good time credits, rather than money, for their prison jobs to shorten their sentences.
Others called for changes to the DOC’s use of discretionary releases. David Taylor, a 64-year-old British citizen at Osborn Correctional Institution, said he was ineligible for community release because of an immigration detainer federal authorities have on him. He said DOC should be required to grant release or treaty transfer for international inmates older than age 65 who are already facing deportation and would be subject to supervision when they’re sent home.
Many inmates requested to opt out of the lawsuit so they could pursue their own cases. Attorney Alex Taubes filed a lengthy list of demands on behalf of 50 incarcerated clients. He called on the state to examine its treatment of incarcerated people through a wider lens, one that acknowledges its past rights abuses.
Taubes demanded that officials commit to increasing funding and oversight of the DOC’s troubled health care system, and to slash funds for incarceration in half and reallocate that money to providing housing, health care and employment for the formerly incarcerated and their families. He urged the state to stop denying applications for parole, transitional supervision and halfway houses. He also insisted that correctional officers should be fined for not wearing masks, and he pushed for a grievance procedure for inmates to follow when they are victims of violence by prison officials or negligence and abuse by medical practitioners.
“We humbly submit that the procedure for the negotiation of this settlement was inadequate and that the parties should return to the negotiating table with a process that includes the voices of people who are incarcerated,” said Taubes.
If the court does not accommodate their demands, Taubes requested his clients not be a part of the class action.
A plea to resume family visits
Multiple inmates mentioned in their objections how COVID-19 has made prison even more isolating. The DOC suspended family visits in March. Inmates can make two free phone calls a week, but to remain in touch with their incarcerated loved ones after they use up their free calls, families must pay some of the highest rates in the country, an expense that can be even harder to finance in a pandemic affected economy.
In his objection, Bryan Jordan, 43, said the agreement must include a plan to bring back family visitation. Jordan, an inmate at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, proposed that the department resume visits by appointment only, allow for visitation rooms to be filled to 40% capacity, conduct a full cleaning in between each visit, prohibit guests from hugging their loved ones and conducting temperature checks.
Jordan said his family is an integral part of his rehabilitation. Visiting with loved ones gives incarcerated people an “alternative narrative,” in Jones’ words, underscoring that they are “human beings who are loved, missed, and need to be included in a family structure.”
In a set of email responses to a query from the Connecticut Prisoner Advocacy Network, a group of people who have incarcerated family members, DOC Spokeswoman Karen Martucci said the agency had not established a timeline on when the visits can resume.
“We acknowledge the importance of family connections and appreciate your patience,” Martucci said, explaining the agency is considering “non contact” options for visitation, where incarcerated people and their loved ones are separated by a glass barrier, though that is not possible at all correctional facilities.
“We have talked to only one state that has resumed in-person visits,” Martucci said in the July 1 email. “It’s complicated and we want to be sure we implement a safe practice.”
Jordan included in his objection a letter he sent to Gov. Ned Lamont, prison officials and local media. Noting his lengthy sentence and his ineligibility for rehabilitative programming because of his conviction — he’s serving a 45-year sentence for manslaughter — Jordan said he has had to seek rehabilitation on his own terms.
“Put differently, what is left for prisoners like me is the reliance on the moral support of our loved ones,” he wrote. “This liberty is now gone.”