ACLU alleges ‘systemic patterns of non-compliance’ in COVID-19 prison lawsuit
The ACLU of Connecticut has raised concerns with the state Department of Correction that officials in the prison system are not complying with the terms of a settlement agreement reached over the summer to protect inmates from the pandemic.
“These systemic patterns of non-compliance are particularly alarming, given rapidly rising positivity rates across Connecticut — and within DOC, as evidenced by the recent outbreak at Hartford Correctional Center,” ACLU of Connecticut attorneys Elana Bildner and Dan Barrett wrote last week in a letter to the attorneys representing the Department of Correction.
“The amount of work that went into these most basic protections for people in custody was enormous,” Bildner told the Mirror. “For the DOC to fall short is inexcusable and dangerous.”
The ACLU filed lawsuits in state and federal courts at the beginning of the pandemic aimed at increasing COVID-19 protections for inmates. A federal judge approved a settlement agreement in July, over the objections of more than 400 inmates who said it didn’t go far enough. The settlement requires the DOC to provide soap and cleaning supplies to inmates, prioritize elderly and medically vulnerable incarcerated people for release to spare them from catching the virus behind bars, and make their best effort to return people quarantined for COVID-19 to their prior housing, jobs and programs.
The agreement expires on Dec. 31.
The ACLU’s letter alleges the DOC is not adhering to the court mandates in its 14 prisons and jails. Instead, according to the group, the department is following guidelines it adhered to earlier in the pandemic, when infection rates spiked in prisons and jails and sick people were subjected to punitive isolation to ensure the virus didn’t spread.
“The whole point of this agreement was to protect and enshrine the gains that were made,” Bildner said. “It took so much to get here. We’re not going to let DOC backslide to the earlier stages of the pandemic, back in March [and] April.”
Karen Martucci, the agency’s director of external affairs, said a five-member monitoring panel established as part of the settlement will address the allegations contained in the ACLU’s letter.
“We are not aware that any of these alleged violations have in fact occurred and are currently looking into them,” Martucci said. “We are committed to adhering to the original agreement, which mainly included provisions already in place as part of the agency’s COVID-19 response plan. The health and safety of our population and employees remain our top priority.”
Chief among the concerns cited by the ACLU is the lack of mask-wearing by prison staff. Those complaints span across correctional facilities, housing units and across work shifts. Some reports state that anywhere from one-tenth to half of staff do not wear masks on a regular basis.
“The No. 1 consistent thing we heard from literally everybody I’ve spoken to or emailed is the issue with staff not wearing masks consistently,” Bildner said.
Besides releasing people from custody, Bildner added, masks are the most critical factor in stopping the transmission of the virus in correctional facilities.
In an interview with the Mirror in September, newly designated commissioner Angel Quiros responded to widespread reports that corrections officers were not wearing masks.
“If a staff member is able to maintain the six feet of social distancing — there’s no inmates, no staff members around that individual — they don’t have to wear the mask,” Quiros said of the governor’s executive order. “But the minute that they cannot maintain that social distancing to six feet, they are wearing the mask, just like we are out in society.”
Quiros said when he visited correctional facilities, he mostly saw incarcerated people and DOC staff complying with the mask mandate. If prison staff violate the order, officials will impose progressive discipline, first showing them the executive order, then eventually writing them up if they still violate the order.
“It has not gotten to a discipline level where there’s been any written reprimand or any suspension based on a staff member refusing to wear a mask,” Quiros said on Sept. 22.
The settlement requires the DOC provide two masks each week to inmates, but those inside Hartford Correctional have told the ACLU they’ve been wearing the same masks since August. Some at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield have said they’ve received only four masks since March. Others have been denied masks when they’ve requested them, according to the ACLU.
“Mask distribution appears to vary enormously by facility,” the letter states. “We consistently are hearing reports that people are not receiving new masks for weeks at a time, especially upon transfer.”
Quarantines and cleanliness
Another of the ACLU’s complaints involve the department’s quarantining of the sick. The agreement has specific provisions regarding the quarantining of inmates who have the virus. The ACLU says they’ve heard reports of people placed in “suspected COVID” quarantine areas with people who have already tested positive, potentially exposing healthy people to a deadly virus. They have also heard that asymptomatic inmates are being placed in units containing COVID-like symptoms, particularly in the jails in Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport — notable because those facilities have the highest turnover of the state’s correctional facilities. Inmates there are often recent arrestees who haven’t been convicted and are awaiting a court date.
The ACLU also said it has received reports that people at Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Montville with suspected COVID-19 symptoms are being held in “punitive isolation,” locked in their cells for long periods without any ability to leave.
Many of the other complaints involve the cleanliness of those facilities and incarcerated people’s access to cleaning supplies that could help them avoid catching the deadly virus.
When the agreement took effect, incarcerated people were receiving care packages that included soap and other hygiene items. The ACLU has received consistent reports that people at Carl Robinson Correctional Institution in Enfield are being required to “sign” for these items even though they aren’t being received. Many others throughout the prison system say they are not receiving adequate soap — the agreement states inmates will be given soap immediately and within 24 hours upon request, provided they don’t already have two bars — and are being told the soap is only for the indigent. There are reports from New Haven Correctional Center that staff are breaking soap bars in half before distributing them, the ACLU wrote.
Other allegations involve the cleanliness of common and sleeping areas, including showers. The agreement states that correctional facilities’ common areas are to be cleaned at least four times a day. The ACLU said they are hearing reports that officials are cleaning less frequently than mandated, if at all.
Inmates are also supposed to receive cleaning agents and equipment at least twice a week so they can clean their sleeping areas. The ACLU states they are not aware of any correctional facilities giving adequate cleaning agents and that some facilities only allow incarcerated people to clean their cells once per week.
At Carl Robinson Correctional Institution, for instance, inmates can only clean their living areas on Mondays, and the prison is locked down the whole day. Some incarcerated at New Haven Correctional Center are using shampoo to clean their cells; some at MacDougall-Walker haven’t been given any cleaning supplies; and many at Hartford Correctional Center, which recently experienced a COVID-19 outbreak, reporting that they’ve never been given cleaning supplies.
The DOC suspended showers for those in quarantine or medical isolation. The agency walked back the policy after public backlash and agreed in the settlement to give incarcerated people access to showers every other day. The ACLU says it has heard reports that people quarantined at Corrigan and Osborn Correctional Institutions are not being allowed to bathe.
One of the most significant pieces of the settlement was the creation of a five-member monitoring panel that would produce reports on the state’s adherence to the agreement’s terms. The group is supposed to produce monthly reports for its first three months, and then quarterly thereafter. It has not yet produced a report.
The panel is independent of lawyers from both sides of the lawsuit. Bildner said she has heard they have visited correctional facilities, but it’s unclear when they’ll produce their first report.
The DOC referred the ACLU’s letter to the monitoring panel, which is responsible for making recommendations related to mass testing strategy, quarantining and sanitation.
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