As communities worldwide instituted public health measures to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, a coalition of Connecticut community organizations has called on Governor Ned Lamont to protect individuals in Connecticut’s prisons and jails.
An open letter drafted by organizations including the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School urged Lamont to use his emergency powers to release individuals at risk of a severe COVID-19 infection. The letter also pressed Lamont to place a moratorium on further arrests given the heightened public health risks faced by incarcerated populations. The coalition published the letter online last Monday and on Wednesday distributed it to Lamont, leaders in the Department of Corrections and Public Health, the state attorney’s office and several mayors.
“People think of prisons and jails as a cordoned-off, separate part of society,” Benjamin Howell, a postdoctoral fellow at Yale’s Clinical Scholars Program, said. “Jail health is very much public health, and we need to think of them as one and the same.”
Howell explained that respiratory diseases like COVID-19 spread quickly among prison populations because cramped conditions prevent social distancing. Prisons also provide limited access to emergency medical care, ICU beds and disinfectants. Access to toilet paper and cleaning supplies is restricted, and individuals who are handcuffed cannot cover their faces when coughing or sneezing. Filling the institutions to capacity further augments the risk of an outbreak, as officers cannot separate inmates who are ill from the general healthy population.
In addition to ceasing arrests and pretrial release, the letter also calls on Lamont to release individuals eligible for parole, protect immigrant communities by releasing individuals awaiting transfer to ICE custody, provide high-quality medical care to individuals who fall ill while incarcerated and suspend mandatory in-person court appearances.
The request for a “moratorium on incarceration” asks Lamont to issue instructions to all law enforcement entities to stop arresting individuals in order to avoid increasing the prison population.
Barbara Fair — longtime community activist — told the News that the request focused on releasing individuals who posed little to no threat to society at large and thus posed little concern regarding public safety.
“When you’re arresting homeless people for being on the Green, or being drunk, they don’t pose a real safety issue,” Fair said. “We’re not talking about people that are committing violence or shooting people. We’re talking about all these little petty arrests.”
Fair emphasized that individuals incarcerated for technical parole or probation violations were among those who should be released, as well as older individuals who were approaching the end of their sentence. Thus far, COVID-19 infections appear to present an increased risk for elderly populations, people with respiratory conditions, and those who are immunocompromised.
Older adults comprise a large sector of the prison population; in 2018, individuals over 40 accounted for 36 percent of the incarcerated population in Connecticut. The letter cited an ACLU study in 2012 that claims individuals over the age of 50 are the least likely demographic to commit another crime if released back into society. The elderly are most vulnerable while incarcerated yet pose little safety risk to society outside of jail, the letter argued.
Activists also underscored the inequity that comes with prisons charging individuals for hygiene products such as soap. The prison commissary system sells food and health products to inmates within the prison. Inmates can usually only afford these items through the low wages of prison jobs — typically 30 to 80 cents per hour — and family members who subsidize their accounts. Those who lack support systems often cannot afford the commissary at all.
“As much as we’re facing a crisis right now, we are at liberty to follow the advice of the CDC and experts to protect ourselves, and that same privilege is not afforded to the folks currently incarcerated in jails and prisons in Connecticut,” said Matt Post ’22, president of the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project. “It’s exposing bare the broad injustices that have been there all along. We’re not just talking about this pandemic, but the fact that if someone inside wants to wash their hands, they have to buy soap from the commissary.”
Hand sanitizer, for example, is generally considered contraband inside prisons, due to its high alcohol content. However, according to Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, an alcohol content above 60 percent is what makes hand sanitizer effectively prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Isaac Spanjer ’22, YUPP secretary, pointed to the 2009 outbreak of H1N1 at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York as an example of the heightened danger infectious diseases pose to incarcerated individuals. The virus infected up to eight inmates. On Saturday, officials confirmed that 21 inmates and 17 employees on Rikers Island had tested positive for COVID-19.
Prisons often resort to stringent lockdown measures in order to deal with health crises –– such as solitary confinement and revoking visitor rights. Activists urged against this in their letter, asking the Connecticut Department of Correction to refrain from solitary confinement as a means of limiting the spread of the virus, claiming it is a “form of torture and a violation of human rights in all cases.”
Lamont and his predecessor Dannel Malloy both have enacted criminal justice reforms in their terms as Governor. Malloy’s administration decriminalized small quantities of cannabis, reduced penalties for nonviolent crime and abolished the death penalty. Lamont, since his inauguration last January, signed laws that increase transparency around police use-of-force instances and data collected on the criminal justice system.
The DOC declined to comment on the letter but stated in a press release last week that there had been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 yet in Connecticut state prisons.
To curb the spread of the virus in Connecticut facilities, the DOC has suspended inmate community work crews, limited nonessential inter-facility inmate transfers, discontinued public tours of facilities and restricted recreation groups to one housing unit at a time. Lawyers are encouraged to make legal calls in place of visits, and collective religious services are limited to a maximum of fifty inmates.
Staff are also being provided with disinfectants and are training inmate workers to deep clean all common areas, such as showers, stairs and toilets.
“Cleaning and disinfecting of the prisons is being performed virtually nonstop on all three shifts,” the release read.
The state has also indefinitely suspended family visits to jails and prisons, instead allowing incarcerated individuals two free phone calls per week.
But activists deemed this measure insufficient and demanded the state grant unlimited free phone calls instead of Connecticut’s standard rate of $5 for a 15-minute phone call.
In a Monday press conference on the open letter, Xiomara of the CT Bail Fund — whose husband is currently being held in immigration jail — shared the strain his detainment had placed on her family. The letter emphasized that individuals in immigration detention face the same health risks as people in jails and prisons and called on the Governor to release individuals awaiting transfer to ICE custody.
“I’m not just worried about his physical health, but also his mental health,” Xiomara said about her husband. “We are like a lot of families in this situation, and I think if the governor is going to take measures to protect our community, that community needs to include immigrant families.”
As of Sunday afternoon, the letter has amassed over 1,300 signatures.
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Correction, March 24: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Barbara Fair’s affiliation with the Connecticut Bail Fund. This article has also been updated to reflect accurate prison wages in Connecticut.