ctnewsjunkie file photo
A now shuttered portion of Obsorn Correctional Institution in Somers (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

One day after announcing that a correction officer at a state prison tested positive for COVID-19, Department of Correction officials said they do not plan any expansion of offender releases unless there is an “emergent widespread outbreak” that overwhelms the prison system’s pandemic quarantine plan.

Gov. Ned Lamont acknowledged at a press briefing he’s aware of New Jersey releasing some prisoners, and he’s monitoring what happens there, but he has no similar plans in Connecticut.

“I remain baffled by all of this,” said state Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee which has oversight over the DOC. “By this point you have 12 to 14 states, roughly one-quarter of the states, taking affirmative action on this issue. I’m confused as to why it’s such a problem to get clarity on this issue.”

Winfield and others have criticized the DOC’s response to the ever-increasing threat of the virus which has killed 12 in Connecticut and thousands throughout the world. Gov. Ned Lamont announced Tuesday that 618 residents have tested positive for the disease which causes fever, cough and difficulty breathing.

“Incarcerated people are sitting ducks in the COVID-19 pandemic,” said David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. “They cannot protect themselves in prisons and jails. Despite calls from family members, formerly incarcerated people, and other loved ones of people inside, Governor Lamont has been silent on protecting incarcerated people from COVID-19. The ACLU of Connecticut has been calling for him to release a plan since March 12.”

DOC Commissioner Rollin Cook is taking note of the concerns, he said, but he remains committed to sending people home safely. “We understand families are naturally worried,” Cook said. “This applies to both our employees and offender population. There is a human dignity component here. We are all living in a time of extreme uncertainty. With that being said, this is one giant balancing act and our current practice is moving the needle in the right direction.”

The DOC employee who tested positive last entered the prison on March 17 –-  the day Winfield sent a letter to Cook questioning agency policies on preventing the spread of the disease and asking if a release of some of the prison population would be coming to keep inmates safe.

Cook did not mention the potential that an employee could be infected with the virus in the response to Winfield’s questions he 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.”

Advocates, including Winfield are concerned that if the virus starts to blow through the prison population it would overwhelm health care workers as the state is encouraging social distancing to stem the spread of the disease. They are calling for a controlled release of individuals who are being held on pre-trial charges on low bonds. But Winfield wants to make sure they aren’t released without housing or supports.

“If you have an outbreak in the prisons and you attempt to treat them in the prisons, you are going to exacerbate the problem,” Winfield said. The only way to halt the spread through the state’s prison population is to release enough inmates to allow those that remain to spread out, he said.

“As uncomfortable as that concept is for people, we aren’t operating in normal times,” Winfield said. “These people are human beings. The virus is going to react in them the same way it reacts in the rest of us. If it spreads in one of the prisons there will be a catastrophe.”

Lamont conceded during his daily briefing Tuesday that the DOC was slow to announce that an employee of the Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown tested positive. But Lamont also said that the prison system has extra capacity to spread people out and that he wasn’t considering releasing more prisoners above the routine number “at this time.”

“New Jersey did a release,” Lamont said. “It’s something we are watching.”

DOC officials were able to bring down the number of incarcerated individuals through “routine release mechanisms, in support of public health and public safety,” a press release said. Since March 1, they released 310 people, bringing the population to 12,099.

The prisons have barred visitors and volunteers for the time being and community work groups have been suspended. As of Monday, each employee now has their temperature taken when they enter a building and all incoming offenders from court are screened, officials said. It is unclear if the screening includes an actual medical assessment and a temperature reading.

The medication-assisted therapy program for those with opioid addiction is continuing with modifications and prisoners do not have to pay a co-pay for medical services, DOC officials said. The population also has been assessed for age and health conditions. The elderly and those with prior health issues are more likely to have complications or death from the virus, according to health officials.

“I am committed to our mission of public safety and I will also continue to safely transition offenders home,” Cook said. “Through all this, I cannot overstate the camaraderie we have witnessed as we all pull together to get the job done. I couldn’t be more proud of the people of this department.”