Connecticut Hashes Out Deal to Release Medically Fragile Inmates

Dozens of protesters drove around Cook County Jail and the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago on April 7, honking their horns and chanting to demand the “mass release” of detainees at the jail. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP File)

HARTFORD, Conn. (CN) — Resolving a federal lawsuit over the spread of Covid-19 in Connecticut prisons, the ACLU said the state has agreed to prioritize elderly and medically vulnerable inmates for release.

Dated Saturday and announced in a press release the next day, the settlement still needs approval by a federal judge. In addition to inmate releases, Connecticut has agreed to upgrade hygiene and sanitation practices in its corrections facilities.

Representing six inmates with health issues, including one man who has since contracted Covid-19, the ACLU brought the underlying suit to have medically fragile inmates temporarily relocated to other settings, including halfway houses.

In Connecticut to date, the disease has killed 4,071 state residents, including seven inmates. As of last Tuesday, 870 Connecticut inmates have tested positive for Covid-19. Several hundred staff members also tested positive since late March.

The Department of Correction is required under its agreement to identify people age 65 and above, as well as people who score either a 4 or 5 in its medical classification system, and fast track those people for consideration for release. A 5 is the highest score in Connecticut’s system, reserved for those acute or chronic illness, disease, or disorder,” among other criteria

For the purposes of the settlement, the committee in charge of identifying medically vulnerable inmates will be formed within the next four weeks. It is supposed to include five people with “appropriate knowledge and expertise in correctional health care and managing infectious disease in a correctional setting or in the management of correctional systems.”

Regarding the hygienic upgrades, the Correction Department has committed to providing regular access to showers with running water, including for people who have tested positive or are presumed positive, while also instituting a system-wide cleaning schedule. Connecticut officials drew fire for placing symptomatic inmates in the state’s maximum-security prison, Northern Correctional Institution, for treatment, with no showers behind locked doors. They have since reversed their position and are allowing showers every other day. 

The agency is also expected to provide two free bars of soap and ensure people have at least two clean and functional masks at all times.

“People who are incarcerated are people, with human rights, dignity, and healthcare needs,” said Dan Barrett, the ACLU of Connecticut’s legal director and an attorney on the case. “It is critical for the state of Connecticut to protect people who are incarcerated from Covid-19, and it is our hope these new measures will protect people from Covid-19 while also treating them with dignity.”

For ACLU Executive Director David McGuire, however, the agreement falls short of their goal for more widespread releases. 

“The legislature must pass a pandemic response plan for Connecticut prisons and jails that includes much broader releases than those mandated in this agreement,” McGuire said. “The state of Connecticut must also take every step to prevent new people from being churned into prisons and jails once the courts reopen. This pandemic has laid bare that Connecticut prisons and jails, as incarcerated people and their loved ones have been saying for decades, are unhealthy, unsafe places for anyone to be.”

Overall, pretrial admissions to prison are down during Connecticut’s coronavirus pandemic, which may be one driving factor in the reduction of 2,000 inmates since March 1 bringing the state’s prison population to the lowest level in 30 years. As of June 2, the most recent date for which the state has provided information, the inmate population stood at 10,400, the lowest number in more than 29 years.

Settlement talks began in late May after a U.S. District Court in Michigan stipulated that Oakland County jail authorities must provide inmates with better protections against Covid-19 — measures that included better social distancing, one person to a cell if possible, more soap, more cleaning in the prisons, and better medical care and facilities for people who contract Covid-19.

According to the Michigan ruling, those who are being treated in a prison for Covid-19 must have access to showers, reading materials, and phones or tablets to remain in contact with loved ones.

“I am pleased about the agreement,” Connecticut Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook said. “Both parties came to the table with mutual interest in codifying practices that best protect people who are incarcerated and the dedicated employees that care for them. Unity and collaboration will always prevail. Today is an example of that.”

Cook said his staff have “selflessly performed their essential duties to ensure the health and safety of those entrusted to our care,” and he believed their actions “saved lives.” 

Attorney General William Tong was also on board with the settlement. “We are pleased the parties were able to work together to resolve these difficult issues collaboratively and with the best interests of all involved,” Tong said.

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