Roxanna Andrade, Contributing Illustrator

Content warning: This article contains references to suicide and sexual abuse.

In-person legal visits have been suspended in prisons and jails across the state of Connecticut, following a pattern of restrictions on life and legal services placed on the state’s incarcerated.

The Connecticut Department of Correction has implemented policies that have drastically altered living conditions for imprisoned people due to the spread of the Omicron variant in facilities. While the new limit on legal visits makes connecting with those outside of correctional facilities challenging, lockdowns within the facilities have stripped the incarcerated of nearly all of their pre-pandemic freedoms, according to attorneys, activists and an incarcerated person who spoke to the News. Physical and mental health conditions have worsened for much of the population, and those who test positive for COVID-19 often face complete isolation and brutal living environments.

Kristal Lis, who is incarcerated at York Correctional Institution, detailed extensive restrictions on recreational time spent outside of her cell, also known as “rec,” where incarcerated people are usually able to shower, receive phone calls, exercise and socialize. According to Lis, incarcerated people would previously receive around six hours of recreational time per day. Under recent changes, they now only receive about an hour of daily free time. 

“They have us locked down 23 hours a day, where we are only coming out 30 minutes during the day and 30 minutes at night,” Lis said. “Some staff will tell us that we can’t have our rec… just because they don’t feel like giving it to us.”

The DOC postponed a hearing for Lis due to the spread of COVID-19, even though it was to be held over video conference a short walk away from her cell. Lis is incarcerated at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, the only women’s prison in the state. York’s web page states that “in person professional visits are postponed until further notice.”

Lis’ defense attorney, Alexander Taubes LAW ’15, received an email from the warden of the New Haven Correctional Center on Jan. 30 informing him that in-person legal visits with his clients could no longer take place. The message stated that “although in person legal visits has [sic] been suspended, we… make other arrangements such as legal calls and legal mail to accommodate any matters in which you need to address with your clients.” However, Taubes claimed there was no video call option for meetings with his clients, either.

“Legal visits are the last to be put on hold and will resume as soon as we are safely able to do so,” Andrius Banevicius, public information officer of the DOC, wrote in an email to the News. “In the meantime, the Agency will continue to accommodate phone calls with legal representatives, and access to legal documents/mail.”

Even before the January suspension of in-person legal services, defense attorneys still faced challenges as they attempted to meet with their incarcerated clients during the pandemic. Christine Rapillo, the state’s Chief Public Defender, wrote to the News that legal visits were still difficult to obtain previously, making it hard to prepare for cases or to discuss depositions. Sometimes, defenders would arrive for scheduled time with their clients only to find no staff able to facilitate their visits.

“DOC has also tried to increase the number of legal calls,” Rapillo added. “All the remote access requires DOC staff to facilitate it, so the virus surge and the wave of retirements make those methods of communication difficult as well.”

Taubes explained several legal issues he took with the limitations put on visits between incarcerated clients and their attorneys, including violations of due process. 

“For the people who are incarcerated pre-trial, it’s a gigantic due process violation,” he said. “Imagine having to decide whether to plead guilty to something you didn’t do and get out of this torture chamber, or continue to maintain your innocence and be stuck there without any ability to get out.”

According to the DOC, as of December 2021, 42.6 percent of individuals incarcerated at DOC facilities around the state have not yet been convicted of a crime. At the New Haven Correctional Center, 82.25 percent of the incarcerated have only been accused of crimes, as of Jan 1. 

Limited access to lawyers has left incarcerated people scared, frustrated and sometimes inadequately prepared for trials and hearings, Rapillo, Taubes and Maddy Batt ’19 told the News. Rapillo shared that while most of her staff received access to phone calls with clients, calls are a poor substitute for visits when discussing case resolution. Batt, Community Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School’s Schell Center, emphasized the impact of the visit policy on legal services as a whole, referring to it as a human rights issue. 

“To not have video visits means it’s much harder to go through the documents that people who are incarcerated need to understand in order to make informed decisions about their cases,” Batt said. “Attorneys need to hear their clients’ opinions in order to advocate properly for their clients.” 

Batt pointed out that legal phone call services are also difficult to schedule and provide lawyers with little room for communication. She recounted her own experiences attempting to schedule legal calls, where she would often have to persistently call and email facilities in order to schedule time to talk with incarcerated people. Sometimes, calls were cancelled without notice. Time limits on phone calls with incarcerated people, which Batt said often last 15 minutes, make communication even more difficult in the absence of in-person visits. The News’ phone call with Taubes and Lis was cut short when Lis’ call minutes expired.

Life behind bars

Banevicius told the News that the new cuts made to recreational time “coincide with the increase in the number of COVID-19 positive staff and inmates.”

When someone tests positive, according to Lis, they are forced into cramped quarantine spaces without basic necessities.

“They put five people in a tiny room on little beds on the floor,” Lis said. “They don’t have any of their belongings. They give them state stuff, which is barely any hygiene stuff — the deodorant doesn’t work.”

Lis added that one of the most prominent issues affecting women incarcerated at York is the inability to socialize with others, as they spend nearly the entire day with only the company of their cell roommate. 

Although they are distinct, lockdown protocols at York and other prisons worldwide share many features with the practice of solitary confinement — those experiencing solitary confinement usually spend up to 23 hours a day in their cells, without the ability to exercise or socialize, and they have restricted access to medical care. Lis emphasized that isolation at York has caused a mental health crisis, and said that one woman died of suicide a few days earlier.

“People are having panic attacks, anxiety attacks,” Taubes said. “They can’t handle it, being stuck in the cell for 23 hours a day. It’s not healthy. We actually know very well that keeping people in isolated conditions for over 20 hours a day, for over two weeks, is well known to cause psychological damage.”

Barbara Fair, lead organizer of Stop Solitary CT, receives letters from incarcerated people in the state “all the time” during the pandemic. She shared that these people have detailed similar experiences to those of Lis, including spending almost full days and entire weekends in cells without the ability to shower or receive standard calls. 

Fair also said she received information on living conditions in the prisons and jails through Freedom of Information services, where she learned about suicides and attempted suicides among the incarcerated. She echoed the connection Lis drew between poor physical and mental health and prison conditions during the pandemic. 

“It’s just so disheartening, reading that, knowing that the conditions are so bad that people are taking their lives,” Fair said. “I just can’t imagine what it’s like to be in these kinds of situations where you’re just a sitting duck to a disease that’s going around that could kill you.”

The Omicron variant triggered a surge in COVID-19 cases in Connecticut prisons. Four incarcerated individuals in the state have died of COVID-19 this month, according to DOC press releases. As of Jan. 28, a total of 7,648 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Connecticut prisons during the pandemic, including 27 people who died due to the virus. Lis claimed that about three people in her building test positive daily, and Banevicius reported that there are 22 incarcerated individuals and 31 employees currently recovering from COVID-19 at York.

Lis noted that she has seen several people put Vaseline in their noses to avoid testing positive and going into isolation. 

Batt said she believes that many incarcerated people attempt to hide symptoms of COVID-19 to avoid facing complete isolation. While isolation within their own prisons and jails is the current protocol for those who test positive for COVID-19, they were previously sent to the Northern Correctional Facility, the state’s only supermax prison, which closed last July. 

“People had been advocating for Northern’s closure for over a decade because of how atrocious the conditions are there,” Batt said. “It’s built to isolate people, it’s built to break them psychologically, essentially. And so I think the DOC kind of showed their hand when they used that as their first option for sending people for COVID isolation.”

Banevicius claimed that incarcerated people who test positive receive medical care from “the approximately 600 dedicated correctional healthcare professionals” employed by the DOC, despite conditions detailed by imprisoned people and advocates.

Incarcerated people who have spoken to Taubes, Fair and Batt have said they believe the behavior of DOC staff poses a health risk in itself. Lis claimed that corrections officers do not enforce mandates when prison wardens are not present, and that they rarely wear masks themselves. Fair and Batt both said that incarcerated people have expressed concerns over how many corrections officers have chosen to not wear masks or get vaccinated against COVID-19. 3,345 DOC staff members at state prisons have received at least one dose of the vaccine as of Jan. 31, accounting for approximately 56.47 percent of total employees per the staffing count given to WFSB on Jan. 10.

According to Batt, Lis and Taubes, corrections officers have retaliated against incarcerated people who speak out when safety measures are not observed. Lis recalled times when she had witnessed corrections officers give women at York disciplinary tickets for telling them to wear masks. Batt said that when incarcerated people demanded access to hygiene products and the enforcement of mask mandates early in the pandemic, they were sent to Northern Correctional Facility.

Nevertheless, the DOC maintains that it has taken several measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Banevicius listed precautions taken by the DOC, including “separating new inmates from others to prevent new inmates from introducing COVID-19, isolating inmates who test positive for COVID-19, vaccinating all inmates willing to be vaccinated, educational efforts to reduce vaccine hesitancy, and regularly testing inmates and staff.”

Although the Department of Corrections names the surge in COVID-19 cases as the source of lockdown protocols, Fair and Batt both expressed doubts that the pandemic was the sole reason incarcerated people in the state faced severe restrictions on movement. Fair’s work with individuals placed in solitary confinement before the pandemic has led her to believe that the DOC can “hide behind COVID” as they strip incarcerated people of their freedoms. Batt accused the DOC of using isolation for “administrative convenience,” posing a problem under both domestic and international law.

On behalf of the DOC, Banevicius wrote, “The restrictions although inconvenient are warranted, as the Agency’s adherence to the phased operational plan has consistently resulted in a Covid-19 positivity rate among the incarcerated population well below that of the general public.”

Looking forward, incarcerated people, their lawyers and prison reform advocates will continue to fight for changes to life inside prisons and jails. Rapillo and her team hope to work with the DOC to expand remote communications between lawyers and incarcerated clients. Taubes shared that one of his clients is circulating a petition at the Hartford Correctional Center advocating for better living conditions, and he said that Lis is working to hold state officials accountable for sexual abuse she experienced when she was incarcerated pre-trial. At the legislative level, Fair said that Stop Solitary CT and other activist organizations continue to push for the passage of the PROTECT Act, which would extensively limit solitary confinement and increase oversight of the DOC and corrections staff. 

As of Jan. 31, there are a total of 636 active COVID-19 cases among individuals incarcerated at DOC facilities.

Megan Vaz is the former city desk editor. She previously covered Yale-New Haven relations and Yale unions, additionally serving as an audience desk staffer.