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Inmates sue over ‘unsafe and unacceptable’ COVID conditions in CT prisons

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By Lisa Backus via CT Insider

At least five inmates filed lawsuits against Gov. Ned Lamont and state Department of Correction officials in June, seeking $500,000 in damages after contracting COVID-19 during the omicron surge this winter that nearly doubled the cumulative number of coronavirus cases in Connecticut prisons, court documents show.

The inmates, all housed at the Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution in Enfield, claim they contracted COVID-19 in late December and early January because the warden and staff weren’t taking proper precautions to limit the spread of the disease, according to court documents.

The men said they suffered a severe cough, shortness of breath and lingering effects, including a cough that continued for months, lack of energy and in some cases Post Traumatic Stress since they feared they would die in prison, court documents stated.

Their complaints included no ability to social distance, infected inmates being placed in their housing units, no partitions in the eating area and no enforcement of COVID protections.

“Willard Correctional Institution as currently operated is unable to comply with public health guidelines to prevent new outbreaks and has discouraged inmates from wearing their masks,” the 25-page lawsuits said.

Each lawsuit is identical except for the name of the inmate and the date they contracted COVID-19. They are all seeking $500,000 in damages.

A spokesperson for Attorney General William Tong’s office, which is representing state officials in the lawsuits, declined comment.

It’s a problem that advocates from the Katal Center for Equity, Health and Justice said could be solved with decarceration and a comprehensive plan to deal with COVID and future pandemics.

But so far their pleas for better protections, including fewer inmates, have been ignored, the organization said.

“Gov. Lamont and lawmakers have thus far failed to develop a comprehensive and transparent COVID-19 plan in the DOC, exacerbating the pandemic crisis within the prisons and jails in Connecticut,” the Katal Center said in a news release issued July 8 after the 30th inmate died from COVID-19-related complications.

“As this latest death shows, Lamont has done little if anything to improve the response to COVID in state jails and prisons,” the center said in the release. “We can — and must — do better.”

The DOC is doing its best to mitigate the spread of the disease, agency spokesperson Ashley Turner said.

“With the growing cases of COVID-19, the Department of Correction remains attentive to the impact on our staff and those in our custody,” Turner said. “We rely on the strength of our health services staff, who continue to collaborate with the Department of Public Health and monitor current CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance for the health and safety of every person.”

The agency has developed a “rigorous and consistent” testing protocol, which is increased when cases in the community rise, Turner said.

“Our protocols detect individuals who may be asymptomatic to enhance monitoring and prevent further transmission,” said Turner, who contends the positivity, hospitalization and death rates for the prisons are far below community levels.

The most recent COVID-19-related inmate death was a 63-year-old man who was terminally ill when he came into the prison system in February, DOC officials said. He was being held on a technical parole violation — the type of charge that could be addressed in the community, Katal Center Director of Organizing Kenyatta Muzzani said.

“His incarceration became a death sentence,” Muzzani said.

As of Nov. 26, 5,565 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to figures posted on the DOC website. As of July 1, that number jumped to 9,115 — a 63 percent increase in seven months. The bulk of the new cases occurred between December and February as the omicron strain impacted the state and the nation.

At the same time, the number of inmates has increased steadily to more than 10,000 since the prison population reached a 30-year low of less than 9,000 during the earlier months of the pandemic as fewer people were being held on bond.

“The people who are in the DOC have a heightened risk of catching COVID, becoming seriously ill and of dying,” said Claudia Cupe, a member of the Katal Center who has two loved ones who are incarcerated. “They don’t deserve all of that.”

Like the inmates who filed the lawsuits, Cupe said the people she knows who are incarcerated are concerned about the lack of social distancing and personal protective gear.

The Katal Center sought amendments to a bill that was before the legislature in the 2022 session that would have created a panel to determine which inmates would qualify for medical or compassionate release during an emergency declaration. But the amendments were not included and the proposed legislation did not make it to a vote on the House or Senate floors.

“I have two loved ones who are in two different facilities and they both are complaining about the same things,” Cupe said. “Mixing people who tested positive with people who are negative is unsafe and unacceptable.”

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