contributed photo
Carmen Nieves and her husband, Juan Rivera. Nieves has been protesting live on Facebook for nearly a week from outside the Bridgeport Correctional Center. (contributed photo)

State Department of Correction officials are under fire after failing to announce a potential case of the coronavirus among prison staff despite questions posed by legislators.

DOC officials announced Monday that a correction employee assigned to the Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown has tested positive for COVID-19, the quick-spreading disease caused by the coronavirus.

The person last entered the prison on March 17 — the day Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to DOC Commissioner Rollin Cook questioning agency policies on preventing the spread of the disease and asking if a release of some of the prison population was imminent to keep inmates safe.

Cook did not mention the potential that an employee could be infected with the virus in his response to Winfield’s questions sent late Friday.

“I am extremely upset about this,” Winfield said minutes after the DOC released the information about the positive test Monday. “At this point, no matter what happened, the fact that there isn’t a plan to deal with this and there will be no way to explain it. On top of that, my job is to make sure there is oversight. I asked specific questions. I don’t even know what we’re doing. It may be too late, but I need answers.”

DOC officials stalled throughout the weekend in responding to questions about potential positive test results at the prisons. Agency spokesperson Karen Martucci said information would be coming out Monday. The employee, who has not been named, has been self-monitoring at home since Wednesday, she said.

As of Monday, anyone entering the state’s prison will undergo a “wellness” check, including having their temperature taken, Martucci said. It is unclear if incoming inmates from the state’s courts were having their temperature checked or any medical assessments before being processed into a state prison.

DOC officials said previously that incoming inmates would be screened with “questions.”

Winfield had sent Cook a letter March 17 seeking answers on the agency’s policies regarding the virus including the potential early release of prisoners to ease overcrowding with the onset of COVID-19 in Connecticut.

The response he received five days later was inadequate and didn’t provide the answers he was seeking, Winfield said Saturday. “My concerns are that the answers that I have gotten weren’t the answers to my questions,” said Winfield who is now seeking clarification from both Cook and the office of Gov. Ned Lamont.

Statewide there have been 10 fatalities and 415 people with positive test results for COVID-19 as of Monday, according to Lamont who has been issuing executive orders limiting large groups, closing businesses and encouraging people to stay home. The elderly and those with prior health conditions are the most likely to develop serious complications or death. The virus causes fever, cough and difficulty breathing.

Advocates who called for the release of inmates last week contend that state prisons are a ripe environment for the easy spread of the highly communicable disease among a vulnerable population that is already prone to health issues including opioid use disorder, hepatitis C and other conditions.

But it didn’t appear that DOC officials were making a move to get low-level offenders out before the virus could take hold in the state’s prisons. Cook did shut down volunteer and community visits to cut down on the potential introduction of the virus into the prison system.

But many say it’s not going to be enough to quell the spread of the disease in tight quarters.

Carmen Nieves has been protesting live on Facebook for nearly a week from outside the Bridgeport Correctional Center where her husband, Juan Rivera, is being held, to seek his release before the virus blows through state prisons.

“They are scared,” Nieves said of her husband and the men she can hear calling out to her as she speaks to Rivera on a daily basis. “They are getting depressed. The government doesn’t care about our prison system.”

She’s been standing across the street from the BCC facility every day since Tuesday in an attempt to draw attention to what she calls inaction on the part of the DOC and the state Judicial Branch.

“I’m seeing the judicial marshal trucks bringing in more people every day,” she said. “I saw one marshal who crossed the street and went into a store and then came back and went inside without any protective equipment.”

Rather than a massive emptying of the prisons, Winfield and community re-entry officials are asking for a measured response that would release offenders who have a place to go and supports.

“I’m not advocating for the release of someone who doesn’t have a home,” said Daryl McGraw, a Senior Re-Entry Analyst with the Institute for Municipal and Regional Planning at Central Connecticut State University.

McGraw instead suggested opening up state college campuses, which are now empty, to house low-level offenders who are being held on low bonds to spread out the rest of the prison population in individual rooms instead of dormitories that house dozens at a time. “DOC also has some closed facilities,” he said. “You could open partial areas of the buildings to quarantine people at least. They do have the buildings, they do have the space.”

As a former inmate who now works in re-entry McGraw said “it’s impossible” for prisoners to practice “social distancing” while incarcerated. “Short of a lockdown, it is impossible,” he said. “And anybody who is in a dorm setting can’t do that.”