The New Haven-based Connecticut Bail Fund has been using whatever money it raises to bail out incarcerated individuals and beef up the commissary accounts of those still inside in an attempt to save lives from the coronavirus pandemic.
“We bailed out 10 people from the New Haven detention center and we’re going to bail out more from York,” said the fund’s community organizer, Jewu Richardson. “We’re trying to bail out as many as possible.”
The group was among dozens of organizations and hundreds of individuals who sent a letter to Gov. Ned Lamont Monday asking state officials to release as many people from Connecticut’s prisons as possible before the virus strikes the prison population.
More than 3,300 people are being held pre-trial, meaning their cases have not been adjudicated and they have not been found guilty, said American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut Executive Director David McGuire.
“That’s nearly a quarter of the population,” McGuire said, who are now at risk in a confined setting. “This is very serious — who are incarcerated and vulnerable,” he said.
The novel coronavirus disease 2019, called COVID-19, has reached pandemic proportions worldwide and the number of confirmed cases in Connecticut multiplies daily. President Donald Trump called Monday for gatherings of 10 people or less to stem the spread of the virus which causes fever, cough and difficulty breathing. The elderly and those with underlying health conditions are suffering the most and have the highest rates of death, health officials said.
The advocates, including Stop Solitary Connecticut and the Lowenstein Clinic at Yale Law School, are calling on Lamont and the state Department of Correction to release as many people as quickly as possible to combat the spread of the virus in state prisons and save lives.
“People in confinement, who have no control over their own movement and must be in close quarters, are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks,” the groups said in the letter to Lamont. “All available public health guidance states that social distancing is the primary tool to combat the spread of COVID-19.”
The letter pointed out that by their nature, prisons preclude appropriate prevention measures and their use must be limited during times of emergency. “In the absence of immediate and decisive action, incarceration will turn into a death sentence for many of our community members,” the groups said.
People spoke during a teleconference Monday of their loved ones living in prison without clean conditions and the ability to obtain basic hygiene items such as soap and laundry detergent.
Many people worry that the prisons will use solitary confinement as a way of containing those who show symptoms of the virus, which is spread through close contact and touching infected objects such as railings and door knobs that aren’t cleaned.
Prison officials said last week that inmates will have access to soap and are being screened with questions as they enter the system from arraignments.
Legislators are concerned, said state Sen. Gary Winfield, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee.
“We’ll be discussing whether there should be some type of proactive release of some prisoners,’ Winfield said. “What I don’t want to happen is that we get to the point where we need to release people, and they haven’t been released in an orderly fashion, to the streets with no place to go.”
The organizations are seeking to have as many people released as possible, including those who will be eligible for parole soon, especially those over 55 years old, those who have uncontrolled diabetes, respiratory conditions or are immunocompromised.
“People over the age of 55 are at the greatest risk for COVID-19, but also pose the least public safety risk to our communities,” the letter to Lamont said.
The groups stressed in their letter that anyone who is released should be supported with health care and other resources including shelter. Given the situation, they also believe there should also be a moratorium on arrests and ticketing for petty crimes with police and prosecutors opting for release on a promise to appear as often as possible as the virus spreads.
The Connecticut Bail Fund has been collecting money so that inmates can request and receive money for their commissary accounts to buy soap and personal care items, Richardson said.
“Nothing has changed in their ability to keep clean, people aren’t getting self-cleaning items,” Richardson said. “They need money so they can buy them.”
The group has set up a hotline for incarcerated individuals to seek help with buying toiletries, he said. They are also trying to help inmates stay in contact with family. “We want them to have access to people on the outside,” Richardson said. “We don’t want them to be invisible.”
Families of those who are incarcerated can call the Connecticut Bail Fund for help at 203-214-4787 or 203-430-0462. Donations can be made to the Connecticut Bail Fund.