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State ACLU Files Suit To Protect State Prison Inmates



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Twelve days after the State Department of Corrections reported its first officer testing positive for COVID-19 at Newtown’s Garner Correctional facility, and with several other officers and multiple inmates at other facilities testing positive since, the ACLU of Connecticut filed a lawsuit, April 3, to try and force the state to better protect other inmates in Connecticut prisons from exposure to the sometimes deadly coronavirus.

The ACLU, representing the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (CCDLA) and people who are incarcerated, filed the lawsuit in Superior Court, Friday, seeking emergency action to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by reducing the number of people who are incarcerated in Connecticut Department of Correction (DOC) prisons and jails.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the CCDLA and four men who are incarcerated, including one with an autoimmune condition, one who is over the age of 60, one who is scheduled for release next month, and one who is being held for want of a $5,000 bond and has only one lung.

“People who are incarcerated in Connecticut are in imminent danger from COVID-19. The longer Connecticut fails to act to protect them, the closer our state comes to a deadly and unconstitutional disaster,” said Dan Barrett, the ACLU of Connecticut’s legal director and an attorney on the case.

As of Friday morning, eight incarcerated people and 16 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 in Connecticut prisons. Five of the inmates live in the Cybulski building of the Willard-Correctional Institution, a lower security prison in Enfield that holds people who pose a low risk to the community and prepares them to reintegrate into society once they are released.

The entire facility is now on lockdown, to prevent the spread of the virus.

“Once the virus comes in, it’s going to spread like wildfire,” Anthony Johnson, a prisoner at Willard-Cybulski and one of the plaintiffs, says in the complaint.

“Connecticut’s courts did not sentence people to suffer and potentially die from a pandemic. While lawyers, advocates, and family members have been filing motions and pleading with the governor and policymakers, we need urgent, coordinated, and system-wide change now to protect incarcerated people’s lives,” said Barrett. “Thousands of people who are incarcerated right now could be safely with their families, posing no danger to the public and out of harm’s way themselves, if the state were simply to act.”

Lawsuit Stipulations

The suit asks the Court to order Governor Ned Lamont and Department of Corrections (DOC) Commissioner Rollin Cook to immediately release people who are vulnerable to serious illness based on CDC heightened risk factors, being held pre-trial on lesser charges or low bond amounts, being held solely for technical violation of probation or parole, eligible for home confinement or supervised release, or within six months of the end of their sentence.

The suit also asks the Court to require Lamont and Cook to submit, for the Court’s review, a plan to: provide hygiene, social distancing, diagnoses, and treatment for people who remain incarcerated; approve residential placements within seven days for those eligible for release; and fund transitional housing for those without residences to go to upon release.

Joining the ACLU of Connecticut in representing the CCDLA and incarcerated people are lawyers from Yale Law School’s Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic and Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization.

According to the Healthy & Just CT Coalition at the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, the novel coronavirus is spreading in jails and prisons across the country — and to prevent even greater harm and death, many states are taking action to release people. In the tri-state area, both New York and New Jersey have started to release people from jails and prisons.

But, defying all logic and public health recommendations, the coalition stated in a release March 31 that Governor Ned Lamont has refused to release incarcerated people in response to COVID-19. The Connecticut Department of Corrections (DOC) is reportedly not widely testing people; the DOC released a memo on Friday, March 27, stating that the Department had conducted only 12 tests.

“Lamont’s refusal to act is completely out of sync with the national trend to save lives and reduce the spread of COVID-19 in correctional settings, and is entirely indefensible from a public health perspective,” the coalition states. The governor has deflected any conversation about even strategic prisoner releases during numerous daily press briefings since the news of the Garner officer was first floated March 23.

The Garner Situation

That day, the DOC said the Garner employee had been self-monitoring at home since Wednesday, March 18, and last entered Garner on Tuesday, March 17. Effective March 23, anyone entering a DOC facility became subject to screening, including a temperature check.

Anyone with a fever of 100.4 or higher is not being allowed in, and as of that day, no other staff or any offenders at Garner had shown any COVID-19 symptoms — and no more had reported being positive as of the noon hour on April 3.

The suit filed April 3 follows an ACLU of Connecticut request, sent on March 26, for the Judicial Branch to consider changing pre-trial release rules during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With that request was a letter from a group of Connecticut medical professionals, who wrote: “Based on current staffing levels in CDOC (including correctional health staffing levels), and based on our experience working within correctional facilities and with affected populations, we do not believe that screening, social distancing, and quarantining measures can be sufficiently employed within CDOC facilities to combat the spread of this virus.”

The suit also follows letters sent on March 10, 12, 16, and 19 from the ACLU of Connecticut and other organizations to Governor Lamont and Commissioner Cook asking for urgent measures to protect incarcerated people from COVID-19.

On March 24, a day after the Garner announcement, Lamont said, “We do have extra capacity [at] our correctional facilities right now.

“We are going to do everything we can to make sure that anybody who may be at risk of being a carrier is segregated or quarantined in a separate area. That’s going to be my priority before we have to think about releasing anybody. It is something we’re watching.”

On April 3, State Senator Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat and chair of the Judiciary Committee, said there has been a lot of public pressure to get officials to explain how they plan to protect the 11,784 people incarcerated in Connecticut from a COVID-19 outbreak behind bars. He said the ACLU’s suit was not unexpected.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all there’s a lawsuit. For weeks now advocates, legislators, and organizations have been asking questions,” he said. “At some point, one would expect they would use the legal system to find out the answers to the questions they’ve been posing and to try and protect the rights of people in our prisons.”

CTMirror content was used in this report.

Newtown’s Garner Correctional facility was the site of the first COVID-19 positive case involving a prison staff member, on March 23. On April 3, the Connecticut ACLU filed an emergency lawsuit to try and force the state to take measures to better protect inmates from contracting and spreading the novel coronavirus. —Bee file photo
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