HARTFORD, CT — Joshua Frazer said Thursday his brother’s biggest fear while incarcerated during the coronavirus pandemic is that he’ll receive “a death sentence” before he’s even sentenced for the crimes he allegedly committed.
“There is no thought of releasing him,” Frazer told more than 80 others who participated in a virtual press conference staged Thursday by the Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice.
His brother Freddie Johansen, charged with three robberies and held on $298,000 bond, has chronic Lyme disease, making him more at risk for complications if he contracts COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus which has killed 27 state residents and thousands around the world.
State Department of Correction officials announced Friday that a custody staff employee working at Hartford Correctional Center where Johansen is being held tested positive for COVID-19. The employee was last in the facility on March 19. It is the third DOC employee to test positive in a week.
Johansen receives a half of a bar of soap each week to keep clean, his brother said. “My brother is hoarding the soap because right now supplies are low,” Frazer said.
His story is not unique. Family members of incarcerated individuals are calling for the release of as many people as possible before COVID-19 takes hold in the state’s prisons.
“They aren’t doing the measures they are saying,” Virginia Rodriguez said of the state Department of Correction’s announcements that cleaning of the prisons is being done continuously. “They haven’t wiped down anything in his cell block for weeks,” Rodriguez said about her fiancé’s time at the MacDougall- Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield.
Rodriguez contended that offenders are being given disinfectants diluted with water and that they must choose between cleaning time to wipe down their own areas or showers – an assertion that DOC officials denied.
Wardens, deputy wardens, health care staff, counselors and correction officers walk through the units daily to make sure that the COVID-19 response plan is being adhered to, said agency spokeswoman Karen Martucci.
“This includes on-going cleaning efforts and the availability of soap for everyone,” said Martucci who also explained that the agency buys disinfectants in bulk that must be diluted. “This is appropriate and routine. The idea that an offender has to choose between cleaning and a shower is just not true,” she said.
DOC officials including Commissioner Rollin Cook and Gov. Ned Lamont have steadfastly contended that a controlled release of offenders, some of which before their sentences were due, would not be happening unless the pandemic overwhelms prison health care staff.
The DOC has released about 500 people in the past month through regular channels, the agency said earlier this week. At the same time, police dealing with COVID-19 on the streets have been issuing non-custodial arrests so that more people won’t be brought into the system.
The state’s Chief Public Defender Christine Rapillo is doing everything on her end to prevent more people from being locked up even as courthouses and public defender’s offices throughout the state are closing over concerns for the spread of the virus.
“I think the first response should be that we have the maximum due process for people,” Rapillo said Friday during a virtual briefing with medical and legal experts on the state’s prison population during the pandemic.
Rapillo feels in-person arraignments rather than video conferences are the best bet for an attorney to make the case to a judge that a client shouldn’t be held. “A video conference doesn’t provide the best due process,” she said. “Attorneys can’t get to know their client and often people won’t be as forthcoming on video as they would in person.”
She’s not advocating a mass release like New Jersey did, simply because it’s impractical to let people out during a pandemic who may have nowhere to go and no supports such as access to medical care or food, she said.
“Housing is critical,” Rapillo said. “We have folks who don’t have a place to go, we want them to get out, but we don’t want them to come back.”
Prior to the pandemic, the state had few resources to provide people with housing or services when they were released from prison, she said.
Roughly one-fourth – or about 3,000 – of the state’s prison population is being held unsentenced while their cases are making their way through the courts. Rapillo is trying to figure out if those people who are being held for violation of probation or misdemeanor charges could get an individual review so they could get out, she said.
Rapillo encouraged family members to be persistent in calling the public defender’s office to seek avenues for release since so many offices are closed. “Bad comes to worse, they can call this office,” meaning hers, she said.
The Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union is asking the Judicial Branch if judges could suspend financial conditions such as bond as a condition of release so that people won’t have to put up money to remain out of prison, said Dan Barrett, the organization’s legal director.
The DOC could also issue furloughs or release people to home confinement, he said. “It’s not very clear to me at the moment that there is a plan to get as many people out as possible,” Barrett said.
For Rodriguez who is a single parent now juggling working from home and home schooling due to the pandemic, the absence of her fiancé is particularly hard. “I need my partner,” she said. “If they just sit in the prison, it’s going to spread. Even hospitals have attempted to limit the spread. It’s like our loved ones are dispensable.”