A prayer card for her Carlos DeLeon is displayed with his portrait in Milagros DeLeon’s dining room in Bridgeport. Carlos DeLeon died of COVID-19 on April 13, 2020, after contracting the virus while incarcerated at Osborn Correctional Institution. Cloe Poisson / CTMirror.org

At the end of January, when a 37-year-old man incarcerated in Connecticut died from complications related to COVID-19, he became the 28th individual in the custody of the Department of Corrections to have died from the illness since the start of the pandemic.

The infectious and deadly virus continues to expose something far too many have learned the hard way, currently and before the pandemic’s start: health care in Connecticut prison systems is failing the men and women who are legally required to receive care from the state.

Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor

While the staggering number of COVID-19 fatalities, not to mention significant infection rates among inmates – roughly one of every 350 inmates in Connecticut has died of COVID-19, and infection rates among both inmates and Department of Corrections employees have been extremely high – indicate the state’s prison population is not receiving adequate health care, this issue has persisted for much longer.

Lawsuits against the state alleging improper care continue to be filed. In 2016 alone, 25 prisoner medical cases, including eight leading to death, were reported. In 2018, one case of improper treatment led to a settlement of $1.3 million.

Legally, Connecticut’s incarcerated are required to have their health taken care of by the state, which makes this lack of compassionate and adequate care all the more baffling. The people in Connecticut’s prisons are there because of actions and decisions they’ve made, but they have an obligation and right to health care the same as the rest of us. The state must rectify this situation and work to ensure the incarcerated receive adequate medical care.

In addition to the cruelty and horror seen in some incidents, such as a 19-year-old dying of untreated lupus over a ten-month period and only given Motrin as relief for pain and several incidents where misdiagnoses of cancer caused permanent injury and death, these incidents point to a second reason why this pattern must change. Lawsuits filed over lack of adequate and compassionate care give the Department of Corrections and our state a shameful reputation, with taxpayers forced to cover inexorbitant and, frankly, unnecessary costs that could easily be prevented.

In fact, one can, and should, ask why the state is willing to invest millions of dollars to settle lawsuits that could have been prevented had the Department of Corrections upheld its legal duties and provided health care for affected inmates. Preventative health care saves thousands of lives and countless sums annually; these incidents show that preventative care is needed, as is a reorganization of how patient health care is considered.

Steps have already been made to improve patient health care in Connecticut, but it remains clear more work is necessary. We have opportunities to ensure the incarcerated receive adequate medical care, and in doing so drastically reduce the negative impacts these practices have on inmate health. In doing so, the state would also serve to save millions of dollars in time.

In March 2019, the Department of Corrections reported a ratio of one nurse on staff for every 43 prisoners, and one doctor on staff for every 579 prisoners, according to the Office of Fiscal Analysis. Ensuring proper staffing levels to allow prisoners more frequent access to medical aid would be a significant step forward for these services.

In addition, providing additional oversight of Department of Corrections health care, such as requiring the Department of Public Health to oversee care, could further aid efforts to improve results. Infusing the department with more funding to facilitate such staffing additions could be the key to preventing further health disasters among prison populations, as well.

The cost of a single lawsuit settlement could be enough to fund significant improvements in care while reducing the frequency of future lawsuits alike – a significant long-term investment benefitting the entire state.

No matter their transgressions, prisoners in Connecticut have basic rights and deserve those rights to be fulfilled. When the costs of not achieving such results are paid by the state’s population at large, it is beyond necessary for us to seek a better way forward.

Saud Anwar MD represents East Windsor, East Hartford, Ellington and South Windsor in the Connecticut State Senate.