Yale Daily News

With the help of the Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic, eight state and national organizations dedicated to veterans’ rights sent a letter on Wednesday to Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont and Interim Commissioner of Corrections Angel Quiros demanding that the state take action to protect incarcerated veterans from COVID-19.

The letter served as a follow-up to a letter that was sent to Lamont and Quiros in April calling for the state to protect the health and lives of incarcerated veterans. The recent letter says that the state has “failed to take necessary action” since April. It comes as the country is starting to face another wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the letter saying that the number of cases in Connecticut –– including in its incarceration facilities –– has been steadily rising for the past two months. The letter’s signatories included the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress, Minority Veterans of America, Connecticut’s branch of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center. Sam Hull LAW ’22 and Rhea Christmas LAW ’21, two members of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic, spearheaded the clinic’s involvement with the letter.

“The state should have taken much more significant decarceral actions, as many of its neighboring states did during the first wave of the pandemic,” Hull wrote in an email to the News. “While the state has taken steps to impose social distancing guidelines in prisons, these steps have not been properly followed or enforced, leaving the incarcerated population at risk.”

Neither Quiros nor Lamont responded to the News’ request for comment.

According to Hull, veterans are older than the average incarcerated person and they are more likely to suffer from disabilities. Because of this, he said, veterans are highly vulnerable to COVID-19. Hull added that the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans make it so that even the veterans who are not exposed to the pandemic may experience adverse mental health impacts due to pandemic-related stress. 

Chelsea Donaldson, a staff attorney at the CT Veterans Legal Center, told the News that incarcerated people are unable to socially distance, making prisons the “perfect storm” for large outbreaks.

“The trajectory for COVID-19 is only going to get worse, and by extension, so are cases in prison,” Donaldson wrote in an email to the News. “Keeping people incarcerated that could be released without a risk to society makes little sense, particularly when the alternative could be horrific.”

The letter demanded that the state offer socially-distanced programming led by outside volunteers to support the mental health of inmates. It additionally called for greater access to mental health services for inmates and more stringent social distancing policies within prisons.

The letter also called on Lamont and Quiros to ensure that personal hygiene supplies are available to inmates, staff and visitors at no cost.

“Prisons are communal living spaces and the Centers for Disease Control recommends [hand] washing after touching items that are frequently touched by others,” the organizations wrote in the letter. “Currently, there are no guidelines for hand hygiene under the current DOC visitation plan. Require all those participating in visits (inmate, visitor, and staff) to undergo handwashing before and after visitations in a manner similar to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ guidelines.”

The letter explained that Quiros is responsible for providing access to legal services and veterans programming because of his responsibility over the reentry of offenders into society. The letter pushed Quiros to place incarcerated people on a 45-day furlough, release incarcerated people who are part of high-risk groups and grant pretrial release for those charged with class D felonies or lesser charges.

Additionally, it highlighted that Gov. Lamont is required to “protect the health and safety of inmates of state institutions” during a public health emergency.

“Many other states released prisoners during the first wave of the pandemic, and similar releases would be well within the legal authority of the DOC Commissioner, pursuant to the statutes that we cite in the letter,” Hull wrote to the News. “Both the Governor and the Commissioner are under an obligation to ensure the safety of the incarcerated population, so it is their responsibility to take the actions we have requested to ensure this safety is achieved.”

Hull told the News that the most important thing that Quiros and Lamont can do is release at-risk prisoners. He said that the best way to stop deaths from COVID-19 is to ensure that the people who are most at risk are not placed in a situation where contracting the virus is likely. 

“I firmly believe that a person is not the worst thing that they have ever done,” Donaldson wrote in an email to the News. “Incarcerated veterans are just as deserving of COVID-19 relief as any other human being in Connecticut, regardless of whether or not they are in jail. Connecticut has worked hard, fighting to keep us safe in rolling out protections and restrictions to stop the spread of the virus. The state should do the same for our most vulnerable population – our prisoners.”

The Veterans Legal Services Clinic is part of the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School.

Julia Brown | julia.k.brown@yale.edu

Julia Brown currently serves as a University Editor for the Yale Daily News. She previously covered the University's professional schools, including the Yale Law School and School of Management. She is a junior in Jonathan Edwards majoring in Economics & Mathematics and is originally from Princeton, New Jersey.