In January, five people passed away from COVID-19 while in the custody of the Department of Correction. The DOC did not release the names of the five men because of medical privacy laws, but did note their age, when they came into the DOC, a succinct timeline of their final days, and finally their charges – the reasons they were incarcerated.
Since April of 2020, 28 people have died from COVID-19 while in the custody of the DOC. The press releases put out by the DOC following each person’s death has followed a similar format of information: age, sentence, when the person entered the correctional system, when the person would have been released, and their convictions or charges.
No particular conviction or charge makes a person more likely to contract COVID-19. But by including a person’s criminal record, the DOC is devaluing the worth of people whose health and safety they are supposed to be prioritizing. Several of the press releases have also noted a person’s decades-old “involvement” with the correctional system – separate from the reason they were most recently incarcerated – with the oldest going all the way back to 1973.
The “involvement” of a 51-year-old male who passed away on January 9 after being incarcerated for less than three months “dates back more than 30 years,” according to the DOC press release. The effect is to diminish the deaths of people in prisons and jails as if they matter less than the passing of people who are not incarcerated. This practice must end.
People who are incarcerated have been among the most vulnerable and at-risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19 since the pandemic began nearly two years ago. Tomas, a 48-year-old man who served 12 years in prison, had just been approved for release in the spring of 2020 when COVID-19 arrived. (Tomas is a pseudonym we’re using because he is still on special parole, a form of community supervision where a person has very limited rights.)
“We heard that a captain caught COVID, then a deputy warden, then officers stopped showing up for work, then the facility went into lockdown and nurses began coming around to take everyone’s temperature,” he said. “There was a lot of fear. It was definitely brought into the facility by staff, but they acted like they were in danger from us.”
It didn’t take long for Tomas to begin feeling the symptoms of COVID-19. “The first thing I felt was water coming out of my nose, then a headache and this weakness all over my body. I couldn’t smell or taste my coffee.” Tomas had a granddaughter that he had never met, and his family was worried that he wasn’t going to make it home alive. Tomas was eventually tested, but only when he left the facility for a halfway house in New Haven, and by then his symptoms had subsided.
Tanya, whose name has also been changed, was released last October and is not surprised by the language used by the DOC. “In prison they treat you like trash. It’s like you have the plague, and that was even before COVID. I’ve run into DOC workers in the community and they act totally different, but I remember how they treated me inside.”
That attitude towards people who are incarcerated has been reflected in all of the DOC’s press releases after a person in custody has passed away from COVID-19. In less than half of the press releases the Commissioner of the DOC has offered his condolences to the families of the people who have died. Following the death of the 11th person, the Commissioner said in a Dec. 1 8, 2020 press release that, “I am committed to continuing the fight against the spread of this virus in any way that I can.” A year later, however, the DOC has the lowest vaccination rate among executive branch employees (65 percent) and the highest rate of non-compliance, according to The CT Mirror.
Of the 28 people who have died from COVID-19 while in DOC custody, four of them would have reached their maximum release date by now, and another person would have been eligible for parole. Two men had already been approved for release when they contracted and died from COVID-19 while still incarcerated. The DOC has also noted in their press releases that several people who succumbed to COVID-19 had preexisting medical conditions, which comes across as an attempt to justify their deaths, and even blame them, by pointing out some prior health issue rather than inadequate medical care and treatment by the DOC.
A 37-year-old man who passed away on January 30 was the fifth person to die from COVID-19 in DOC custody without being convicted of the charges they were facing. Four of the five men were incarcerated before the start of the pandemic, and they all had high bonds. They likely did not have the resources to buy their way out of incarceration before contracting the virus. By highlighting the charges a person was facing, but failing to note that a person should be considered innocent until proven guilty, the DOC press releases have been another demonization of people in their custody.
“I believe the language the DOC uses is an attempt to convince society to not care or question why people are dying in DOC care,” said Tracie Bernardi, an advocate working on behalf of incarcerated people since she was released in 2015. “It sounds like victim blaming, like they asked for it, by putting themselves in prison,” she said. “None of these people were sentenced to death. I think about the family members who expected their loved one would be coming home to them, and how these press releases may be the last thing they ever read about them and how insulting that would feel, especially during their grief.”
The DOC can continue to inform the public when people in their custody die from COVID-19 without stigmatizing and debasing their lives.
Gus Marks-Hamilton is a member of the Connecticut Mirror’s Community Editorial Board.