Northern Correctional Institution, in Somers, will close by July 1. Kelan Lyons / CT Mirror
Northern Correctional Institution, in Somers, will no longer house inmates who show symptoms of COVID-19. Kelan Lyons / CT Mirror

The Department of Correction announced Wednesday it will stop sending symptomatic inmates who have contracted COVID-19 to Northern Correctional Institution, marking a significant shift in its response to the ongoing pandemic.

The agency started sending COVID-positive inmates to Northern in April, drawing the ire of advocates who said the use of solitary confinement at the state’s most secure prison exacerbated inmates’ mental health conditions. Inmates reported hiding symptoms to avoid being sent to Northern, fearful of the isolation there.

In a statement, newly designated DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros said Northern was the only prison that was readily available — thanks to a sharp population decline — and allowed officials to comply with CDC guidelines.

“Northern was the only option at the time, and it played an important role in helping to minimize the spread,” Quiros said, adding that a decline in the incarcerated population, coupled with a lull in infection rates, have since allowed corrections staff to create space for a Medical Isolation Unit in the MacDougall building in the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, the most populated prison in the state.

Officials chose that location because of its modern infrastructure, according to the DOC, which is in line with federal guidelines related to the care of prisoners during the pandemic. Those guidelines also recommend medical isolation units be equipped with cells that have solid walls and doors, and that the units have efficient ventilation systems.

The MacDougall building also has medical triage units located within housing units, giving inmates easier access to medical care.

Those infected with the virus who have active symptoms of COVID-19 will be sent to the specialized unit. The department has not had a symptomatic inmate among its incarcerated population since Sept. 2.

Claudine Fox, campaign manager for the ACLU of Connecticut, which twice sued the state over its handling of the pandemic, said the DOC’s decision to close its COVID-19 unit at Northern is a result of incarcerated people and their families speaking out about officials’ decision to send sick people to a prison “known for inflicting human misery and suffering.”

According to the ACLU, since March the DOC has transferred or incarcerated more than 600 people at Northern, more than three-quarters of whom were Black or Latino.

“While it is good news that the DOC will no longer send sick people to Northern, it never should have sent them there to begin with,” Fox said, “and the best way to protect incarcerated people from COVID-19 remains releases.”

Moving the medical isolation unit to MacDougall offers a peek at how the DOC will handle a potential second wave of COVID-19 in the fall.

“Given the extremely difficult, never before seen challenges our staff faced during the initial wave of the pandemic, they did an incredible job,” Quiros said. “However, there is always room for improvement. We’ve examined our initial response, identified and made the necessary adjustments, and now we are better prepared for 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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