Courtesy of CT Bail Fund

On Monday night, the Connecticut Bail Fund held a virtual teach-in revealing recorded accounts from individuals incarcerated in Connecticut during the pandemic.

At the event, titled “Behind the Walls: A Virtual Teach-In to Expose the Systemic Violence of CT Dept. of Corrections,” the fund played recordings it had compiled from the over 2,500 inmates that have contacted the fund’s prison support hotline since it launched in March. The testimonials detailed various alleged abuses within DOC prisons, like physical violence and denial of medical care. The organization has created a timeline to delineate these reported incidents of violence within the New Haven Correctional Center, or NHCC, since March. 

“It’s like we’re hostages,” said D.J., an inmate in one of Connecticut’s prisons, in a recording played by the fund. 

Those who provided testimonials were identified either by their initials or by their first name to protect their identities during the event.

The DOC and NHCC did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In his recording, D.J. told those in virtual attendance of his experience with delayed court dates and the prolonged amount of time it has taken the state to grant him a public defender. Inmates like D.J. have been using the fund’s prison hotline to express concerns over their personal health and safety.

“The Department of Corrections is not being transparent about COVID-19 conditions and the only way we knew what was going on was by hearing from folks on the inside,” Nika Zarazvand ’20, a volunteer for the Connecticut Bail Fund, said.

The bail fund has accused the DOC of having done “little to nothing” to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in DOC facilities. On the DOC’s website, the NHCC has reported 140 positive cases of COVID-19 since March. According to the fund, one in five inmates who called their hotline expressed worry about the risk of “severe illness or death from COVID-19” given their preexisting conditions.

The fund also alleged in an audio recording played at the event that there had been a “systematic neglect of medical needs” at NHCC in July and August.

In a call on July 28, an inmate identified as B. told the fund that medical officers were forcing him to sign a statement indicating that he had received appropriate medical care. B. has been in the facility since August 2019 and said he has not received his cancer treatment since the pandemic began.

“[The inmates] are not sentenced to life sentences, but this is the reality that so many people are faced with,” Connecticut Bail Fund community organizer Jewu Richardson said. “There are actually people that die under DOC. Whatever they were sentenced to becomes a life sentence when they died and they were never able to walk out of those gates.”

Another testimonial, from an inmate identified as J.M., said that “no [COVID-19] precautions were being taken” at his facility. He said that though medical staff were conducting temperature checks, the staff did not change their gloves between patients.

Other callers reported improper sanitation practices and quarantining protocols within their facilities. In his testimony, a man identified as G.A. said that even after his COVID-19 test came back negative, he was housed in a cell with four COVID-positive inmates. Initially, he said the correction officials denied his request to be moved — but when they finally approved the request, the officials refused to retest him for the virus. According to G.A., the cells at his facility are only sanitized once a week.

Marcus, a recently released former inmate, said that NHCC officials only put the facility on lockdown after the national declaration of emergency. He also said that the officials mistakenly sent an inmate with the virus into the COVID-free block.

“They didn’t have no care for us in there,” said Marcus. “It was dangerous and scary — very, very scary. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy to be at New Haven Correctional Center with the pandemic going on.”

According to the DOC’s website, COVID-19 positive inmates are placed in solitary confinement for quarantine purposes. O.I.’s testimony stated that inmates in solitary confinement are not allowed to speak to their families, have recreation time or come out of their cells to eat. According to the same testimony, quarantined inmates are also provided with only half a bar of soap every two weeks. Inmates are kept in solitary for as long as they are symptomatic.

The statement of another inmate, T.M., said that inmates at his facility have hidden their COVID-19 symptoms for fear of being subjected to solitary confinement.

According to Phoebe, whose brother is incarcerated at NHCC, inmates who are hospitalized for COVID-19 face the mental and physical weight of illness alone. Phoebe said that her family was not notified of his brother’s diagnosis. When she asked officials why she did not receive information, she said she was told that it “was not something that they [did]” and that she needed to fill out an information form to obtain information about her brother.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a successful lawsuit against Gov. Ned Lamont on April 13, seeking to reduce prisoner populations and limit COVID-19 spread. According to the bail fund, the NHCC has committed over 24 violations of the ACLU settlement agreement. According to the settlement, the DOC must provide inmates with soap and cleaning supplies, prioritize medically vulnerable inmates for release to reduce the risk of COVID-19 and return people quarantined with their prior housing and jobs.

Howard Lehman, a former inmate in Connecticut, told those in attendance he believes that “a lot of what [he] experienced while incarcerated continues today” and that community pressure can invoke meaningful change within the DOC system. Lehman added that he hopes these stories “do not fall on silent ears.”

As of Nov. 3, there have been 1,674 COVID-19 cases in Connecticut prisons.

Razel Suansing | razel.suansing@yale.edu