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Prisoners Who Test Positive For COVID-19 In Connecticut Are Sent To A Notorious Maximum Security Prison

Faculty members of the Yale School of Public Health, the Yale School of Medicine, and the Yale School of Nursing wrote to the governor that sending patients there is “inhumane and ineffective.”

(Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo by Getty Images.)

Connecticut prisoners who test positive for the novel coronavirus may be sent to a maximum security prison, where they will be isolated in their cells and forbidden from taking showers, according to the state department of correction’s orientation notice for incarcerated patients. Fourteen days after the onset of symptoms, prisoners will be considered for release. 

“I feel like they are punishing us for having COVID-19,” said Christopher Russell, a prisoner who was transferred to Northern Correctional Institution, in a statement submitted as part of a lawsuit against the governor and department of correction commissioner. Russell was moved to the facility after he began exhibiting symptoms, but was tested once he arrived. He said he was permitted out of his cell for 30 minutes a day to make two phone calls, and his cell was “freezing cold,” making it difficult to breathe. 

“There’s toilet paper with urine on it on the floor of my cell,” he said. “It looks like the cells have not been cleaned in a while.”

He arrived at Northern on April 20, but was not given his inhaler for his asthma until the night of April 21 when he woke up and couldn’t breathe, he said. 

“There is a buzzer I can press in the cell, but I couldn’t get up to press it because I couldn’t move or breathe,” he said. “I couldn’t do anything until a CO came around on tour.”

Medical professionals and civil rights attorneys have condemned the practice of sending people with COVID-19 to Northern, which, according to the department of correction website, is “designated to manage those inmates who have demonstrated a serious inability to adjust to confinement posing a threat to the safety and security of the community, staff and other inmates.” Prisoners at Northern are confined to a concrete cell, which measures seven by 12 feet, according to the state’s ACLU affiliate. 

“There’s no specialized medical equipment in Northern or specialized medical care that we’re hearing of,” said Elana Bildner, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Connecticut. “People are just taken to Northern, locked in cells the size of a closet.” In an email, the Department of Correction said prisoners quarantined at Northern have access to dedicated, in unit, 24/7 medical staff.

Last year, Yale Law School’s Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic sent a letter to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, detailing conditions at Northern. In response, Melzer said in a statement on February 28 that the state department of correction’s use of prolonged isolation suggests a there is “a State-sanctioned policy aimed at purposefully inflicting severe pain or suffering, physical or mental, which may well amount to torture.” 

Faculty members of the Yale School of Public Health, the Yale School of Medicine, and the Yale School of Nursing wrote to the governor that sending COVID-19 patients to Northern is “inhumane and ineffective, especially in light of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture’s recent condemnation of the CDOC’s widespread use of prolonged isolation.” 

“We are concerned that the human rights of incarcerated individuals are being unduly contravened in the name of medicine; isolation of sick patients in Northern C.I. is a punitive measure, not a public health one,” they wrote in a letter to Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont. The governor’s office declined to comment.

People who test positive for the virus, both pre-sentenced and sentenced, are moved to a “Medical Isolation Unit” at Northern “for the purposes of receiving centralized medical care,” department of correction spokesperson Andrius Banevicius wrote in an email.

Prisoners in the medical isolation unit “are allowed to make phone calls, ideally allowing them the opportunity to touch base with loved ones,” he wrote. “The Offenders’ movements, programming, and recreation is limited in order to let the affected individuals recuperate from their illness.” 

As of May 7, there are 97 people with COVID-19 at Northern’s isolation unit, according to the department of correction website. A total of 484 prisoners have contracted the virus, according to the department’s website. It does not state the total number of people tested. Six Connecticut prisoners have died of the virus.

But the extent of the spread of the virus in the state’s prisons is unknown. Prisoners are discouraged from reporting symptoms, said Dan Barrett, legal director of the ACLU of Connecticut.

“Guys have gotten the message that unless you want to go to Northern, keep your mouth shut if you’re sick,” he said. “Just stay in your cell. Keep your head down.”

Last month, the ACLU of Connecticut, along with the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project and law firm Dechert LLP, filed a class action lawsuit against the governor and the department of correction commissioner. The suit was filed on behalf of all incarcerated people in the state, both those held pretrial and those who have been convicted. The state, they argue, has not protected prisoners from contracting the virus and has then punished those who become ill.

The Attorney General’s office, which is representing the state, has argued that the district court did not have jurisdiction to hear the case, as the plaintiffs had not exhausted state judicial or prison administrative remedies. On Wednesday, a federal district judge ruled the case can proceed, due to “the life-and-death consequences at stake.” Department spokesperson Banevicius wrote to The Appeal that the department does not comment on issues related to active litigation. 

“Given the reality of the disease, which is spreading in Connecticut prisons, and the consequence of potentially catastrophic health outcomes, the Court concludes that exhaustion of state remedies would be futile, because, under current conditions, Plaintiffs are at substantial risk of contracting the disease prior to completing the exhaustion process,” wrote Senior U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton. 

To help limit transmission, the plaintiffs request that Governor Lamont and Commissioner Rollin Cook release those who are vulnerable to potentially fatal complications, and institute preventative measures—reforms which they argue are urgently needed. In statements submitted with the suit, prisoners describe unsanitary conditions, close contact with prisoners and officers, and medical neglect.

A prisoner at Brooklyn Correctional Institution said in a statement that he has received two free bars of soap in about five weeks. Soap costs 90 cents at commissary, he said, noting that this is a significant portion of their pay. The job of “Blood Spill Cleaner,” for instance, pays $1.75 per spill, according to the latest pay information linked on the department of correction website. Some prisoners earn as little as 75 cents a day. If a person has less than five dollars in their account, personal hygiene items—shampoo, soap, toothpaste, and toothbrush—are provided free of charge, according to the department of correction’s Friends and Family Handbook.

A person incarcerated at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center said that after he reported feeling ill, he and his cellmate were confined to a cell for 15 days. He could not shower or make phone calls. “The worst part was that I couldn’t call my family,” he said in a statement. “I could have died in there without anyone knowing.”

Another incarcerated person, who has asthma and is also housed at Corrigan, said in a statement that he is scheduled to be released in about 30 days. He fears he won’t survive his last few weeks of incarceration. “I don’t want to go home in a body bag,” he said.