Cheshire Correctional Institution on Sept. 23, 2020. A 67-year-old man who had been incarcerated there died of COVID-19 recently. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org
Cheshire Correctional Institution on Sept. 23, 2020. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

The Department of Correction’s routine mass testing of prison staff and inmates has made it logistically difficult to quarantine and transfer people to different facilities, according to a recent report from a monitoring panel.

“The DOC has undertaken a herculean effort to test everyone who resides and works within the facility, far and above that which was expected as part of this agreement and far more than any other state prison system to our knowledge,” the panel wrote in its report about Cheshire Correctional Institution. “The high volume of testing has required frequent movement of people within the facility based on test results, which has been logistically challenging.”

The panel, created out of the ACLU of Connecticut’s class action lawsuit over the state’s handling of COVID-19 in correctional facilities, is charged with reviewing the Department of Correction’s ongoing response to the pandemic. The panel’s areas of focus include mass testing strategies, quarantining the sick and cleaning and sanitizing correctional facilities.

This is the second report the panel has produced, the first of which was finished Dec. 2.

Monitors visited Cheshire Correctional Institution on Dec. 10, touring two housing units holding symptomatic and asymptomatic inmates, as well as quarantine units for people who were exposed to the virus.

The DOC utilizes broad-based testing, nasal swabs and rapid testing when appropriate, such as for contact tracing purposes or before inmates are transferred out of the facility. Cheshire quarantines entire housing units when residents test positive for the virus. To prevent “endless quarantine,” the prison rapid-tests a quarter of each housing unit every few days after they are exposed to COVID-19.

On the day monitors visited the Cheshire prison, those who had tested positive for the virus and showed symptoms were being held in the Commissary Housing Unit. There was no signage on the entry door to indicate it was a COVID unit or that appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment) should be donned.

There were 34 people in that unit at the time of the panel’s visit. All of them were awaiting transfer to the medical isolation unit at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, but there were no beds available there. Medical observation of sick inmates was not possible in the commissary housing unit because of its layout, the report noted, making it an inappropriate place to house them.

The report notes that the Cheshire warden told the panel the Commissary Housing Unit will no longer hold COVID-positive inmates.

“Cheshire CI is a Level 4 medical facility but does not have an onsite infirmary — it should be prioritized for bed space at MacDougall Walker for people who are symptomatic with COVID infection,” the panel wrote, recommending officials institute daily medical provider calls to discuss people who are sick and coordinate medical care, instead of relying on emails.

Additional recommendations include working with local ambulance companies to ensure the sick are transported to hospitals in a timely manner; training transport workers; surveying staff willingness to be vaccinated for COVID-19 and strategizing how to ensure as many employees are vaccinated as possible; discussing the vaccine with incarcerated patients at each medical visit; and filming DOC leadership and clinical staff getting the vaccine, to encourage compliance.

The panel is made up of people selected by both the state and the ACLU of Connecticut. Its members include Dr. Byron Kennedy, the DOC’s chief medical officer; William Mulligan, a district administrator and the interim deputy commissioner for the DOC’s operations and rehabilitative services; Dr. Homer Venters, former chief medical officer for New York City’s correctional health services; Dr. Jaimie Meyer, an associate professor at Yale School of Medicine who performs clinical work in Connecticut’s prison for women; and Dr. John Morley, chief medical officer for New York State’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

The group notes that it visited York Correctional Institution, the women’s prison, on Dec. 29, a visit it will recount in its January report. Negotiations continue over whether the panel will continue its work through March. Panel members also plan to review the medical records of those who have died in DOC custody since the beginning of the pandemic.

An impending vaccine rollout 

On Tuesday, an advisory group recommended those in state correctional facilities be among those next in line to get the vaccine in Phase 1B of distribution, beginning as early as the end of this month.

The vaccine advisory panel has not discussed making the shots mandatory for those living in congregate settings, state Department of Public Health acting commissioner Deidre Gifford said at Gov. Ned Lamont’s Thursday news briefing, assuaging the concerns of advocates for the incarcerated population that those in prisons and jails would be mandated to get the vaccine. That fear is rooted in a distrust of the quality of the medical care provided in the prison system, as well as in incidences throughout U.S. history where prisoners were made test subjects in medical experiments conducted by the U.S. government.

Gifford said operators of congregate facilities would make their own decisions on whether to quarantine those who do not get vaccinated, to protect them from getting infected.

“Those decisions will be individualized based on the setting and based on the prevalence of others in the setting who have been vaccinated,” she said.

Advocates will be watching how the state Department of Correction handles those who decline a vaccination. David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, which last year sued the state twice over its handling of the pandemic, expressed concern that inmates would be coerced into getting the shot, threatened with losing privileges or quarantined in isolation if they refuse.

“It is essential that Connecticut roll this vaccine out for people who are incarcerated in the right way, by ensuring they have the same autonomy as people on the outside to decide whether to receive the vaccine, by providing comprehensive and accurate public health information about the vaccine for people who are incarcerated, and by ensuring incarcerated people are treated equally to each other regardless of their vaccination status,” said McGuire.

The DOC does not have any plans right now to quarantine those who decline the vaccine, said Karen Martucci, the agency’s director of external affairs. The department is in the process of putting informational videos that inmates can watch on the televisions in their housing units’ common areas. The videos will provide basic information on the vaccine, so incarcerated people can make an informed decision about whether they want to get it.

“In the end, it’s their choice,” said Martucci.

The DOC started testing all inmates for COVID-19 last May. In its first round of mass testing, hundreds of people incarcerated at Osborn Correctional Institution opted out. The compliance rate has been much higher in subsequent rounds of testing, Martucci said, which she attributes to better education. She suggested the education and high compliance rate of the mass testing will provide a solid framework for vaccine distribution once the rollout begins.

Health care workers in the corrections system started getting vaccinated Friday as part of the Phase 1A rollout, said Martucci. The continued education of the incarcerated population, in addition to corrections staff beginning the vaccination process, will bring the prison system closer to fully resuming activities curtailed during the pandemic, like group programing and gym recreation time.

“We want to get back to some level of normal operations,” said Martucci.

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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