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CT’s largest prison facility was quietly locked down amid COVID spike: ‘It takes a toll’

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By: Alex Putterman via CT Insider

COVID-19 cases in Connecticut prisons have spiked this winter, Department of Correction data shows, resulting in a multi-week lockdown at the state’s largest facility.

According to data provided by the department, 657 DOC employees and more than 700 incarcerated people statewide have tested positive for COVID since the start of December, leaving a designated COVID infirmary unit to treat more 100 people at a time throughout the winter. These figures are up notably from the fall, the numbers show, though lower than during the omicron surge of a year ago.

As has been the case at other phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, activists now say prisons’ tight quarters make for an unsafe environment, while correctional officers say the virus has contributed to unsustainable staffing levels and difficult working conditions.

“You’re exposed to the virus for almost 16 hours a day,” said one officer at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on conditions at the facility. “On top of that you’re tired, and you’re taking it home to your family or possibly risking your family contracting the same virus.”

Though COVID cases have been spread throughout the state’s prisons this winter, the problem has been particularly acute at the MacDougall facility, where administrators identified 50 new COVID cases during a round of routine biweekly testing Jan. 7, leading them to impose a lockdown that eventually lasted more than two weeks.

Under the level of lockdown initially imposed at MacDougall, the incarcerated population was confined to cells for most of the day, DOC spokesperson Ashley McCarthy said.

“The [cases] were scattered in different living areas, so it made the most sense to go to what we internally would call Phase Three, which is the most restrictive, in order to stop further spread,” McCarthy said. “It’s the most minimal movement we can do in order to keep people safe.”

Throughout the pandemic, advocates in Connecticut and elsewhere have lamented what they see as dangerous conditions for incarcerated people, 30 of whom have died due to COVID-19 since March 2020. Claudia Cupe, an activist with the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice who has a family member incarcerated at MacDougall-Walker, said conditions there have been “just terrible all around.”

“They don’t have proper cleaning items to clean their cells with, they don’t have proper PPE, they don’t have hand sanitizer, they don’t have proper masks,” Cupe said. “They don’t have any of the stuff that we have out here.”

It likely doesn’t help that both incarcerated people and DOC staff are less likely to be vaccinated against COVID than the broader state population. As of Jan. 19, only about half of people incarcerated in Connecticut had received at least two COVID vaccine shots and 38 percent had received at least one booster, according to DOC data, while only about 58 percent of DOC employees had received even a first dose.

McCarthy said DOC makes vaccines readily available for anyone who wants one, while also testing regularly, providing personal protective equipment and requiring masks in all facilities. Lockdowns are triggered, she said, when more than 2 percent of tests come back positive on a given day.

Prison conditions in Connecticut have come under focus repeatedly throughout the pandemic, as COVID has often spread even more quickly within correctional facilities than on the outside.

In the early days of the crisis, activists lobbied Gov. Ned Lamont to release people from jails and prisons to protect them from the disease, something state officials largely declined to do. Later, amid an omicron variant surge last winter that infected nearly a fifth of correctional officers and hundreds of incarcerated people, DOC employees raised alarm about low staffing levels, which they said led to low moral and exhaustion.

This winter’s spike, DOC data shows, has not been nearly as severe as what the system experienced last year but has nonetheless had a significant effect statewide. According to DOC numbers, 406 staff members tested positive for COVID-19 during the month of December, fewer than the year prior but still the third most of any month during the pandemic. Another 251 tested positive during the first 25 days of January, the data shows, leaving the current month also on track to be one of the worst of the pandemic.

Public data updated each Thursday shows that DOC currently has 216 staff recovering from COVID-19, along with 179 symptomatic incarcerated people. The COVID recovery center at MacDougall-Walker has seen between 450 and 500 people total in recent months, McCarthy said, and was treating 128 patients as of the most recent data update in late December.

Collin Provost, president of AFSCME Local 391, a union representing thousands of Connecticut correctional officers, said the spread of COVID among DOC employees has resulted in officers being forced into demanding schedules, full of long shifts. He describes having to “finish a day that’s 16 hours, dealing with what they’re dealing with inside the prison, and then be told they have to do it for another eight” the next day.

“It does have a major effect on the psyche of individuals day in and day out,” he said.

The MacDougall-Walker correctional officer who asked not to be identified said the long hours are made worse by the fear that they could catch COVID at any moment.

“It’s very stressful,” he said. “It takes a toll on your body, physically, mentally, emotionally.”

McCarthy acknowledged that staffing has been an issue within DOC for the past few years due to not only COVID absences but also a recent wave of state employee retirements. She said the problem has improved slightly in recent months as retirements have slowed and the state has hired additional corrections officers.

At various times in the pandemic, McCarthy said, low staffing levels have led prison administrators to impose lockdowns — something that has frustrated incarcerated people and their advocates. 

Barbara Fair, a New Haven-based criminal justice activist, has been critical of the state’s response to COVID in prisons from the beginning, arguing that the Lamont Administration’s reluctance to release more people early in the pandemic had led to unnecessary sickness and death. Today, though, Fair said her primary concern is that the DOC has been too quick to impose lockdowns, particularly since a bill limiting solitary confinement passed the state legislature earlier this year.

“I think they use COVID as an excuse,” Fair said. “It was really bad at one time, as it has been out here, but it’s not that bad anymore.”

On one hand, Fair is right that COVID doesn’t pose the threat it once did. Serious illness and death from the disease have become far less common on the outside, and DOC has not reported a COVID-related death of an incarcerated person since July.

On the other hand, DOC data shows that the disease remains prevalent within prison walls. Provost, from the corrections union, said he would welcome higher staffing levels but would also love to see less COVID.

“The reality of COVID is still there for these individuals who are living with it,” he said.

alex.putterman@hearstmediact.com.

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