Four inmates and the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association are seeking court intervention to force Gov. Ned Lamont and the state Department of Correction to release more offenders as COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the state and the prisons.
The 20-page complaint filed Friday morning claims that while Lamont has taken executive action throughout the state to limit gatherings to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, he and Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook have left nearly 12,000 people, held for pre-trial proceedings and those who are sentenced, with no way to protect themselves in the state’s prisons.
“As public health experts indicate, the only feasible way to mitigate the disease within prisons and jails is to take swift action – before the disease hits – to significantly decrease the population in custody so that social distancing may be practiced and at risk groups are out of harm’s way,” the lawsuit filed by the ACLU Foundation of Connecticut said.
The complaint said the threat of the virus in the state’s prisons is falling disproportionately on Black and Latino offenders who combined make up nearly 70% of the inmate population. People of color make up about 38 percent of the state’s population, the lawsuit said.
“The administration is reviewing the lawsuit and will not comment on pending litigation at this time,” Max Reiss, a spokesman for Lamont said. “All measures taken during this public health emergency have been to maximize public health outcomes wherever possible, especially inside our correctional institutions in the interests of both staff and incarcerated individuals.”
As of Thursday, 16 staff and 8 inmates throughout the state’s prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the DOC. Close to 600 people have been released since March 1, officials said. The lawsuit is claiming that the number is woefully insignificant and that more people need to be released to allow those that remain to adequately “social distance” to stop the disease from blowing through the prisons.
Approximately 200 inmates are being held for pre-trial proceedings on bonds of less than $50,000 including Anthony Jones, a 61-year-old offender who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Jones is housed at the Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution in Enfield where five inmates have tested positive for COVID-19.
Johnson is living in dormitory-style housing at the prison with 100 men, the lawsuit said. “Once the virus comes in, it’s going to spread like wildfire,” he said in the complaint.
Another plaintiff Daniel Rodriguez, housed at Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers, is eligible for placement in a halfway house but was told that no placements would be made during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A third plaintiff, Marvin Jones is being held at the New Haven Correctional Center because he can’t make $5,000 bond, the complaint said. Jones has one lung due to a prior injury, the lawsuit said. The fourth plaintiff, Willie Breyette has asthma and Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune condition.
As of Thursday, there have been 123 COVID-19-related deaths in Connecticut with more 3,500 state residents testing positive for the disease. Those who are over the age of 60 or have prior medical issues are more at risk for complications or death from COVID-19, health officials said.
The action cites union officials who have said for months that the inmate health care system is short at least 100 health care workers.
“Connecticut prisoners, like their counterparts nationwide, are given almost all of their medical treatment in the same facility in which they are housed, rather than in a dedicated medical facility such as a clinic or hospital,” the complaint said.
The 300 members of the criminal defense attorneys association and the four plaintiffs are seeking the release of all those who are at higher risk for complications, those being held on misdemeanor charges with bonds of $50,000 or less, those being held on technical violations of probation, and those who are eligible for home confinement and who are within six months of their scheduled release.
“For weeks the defendants have known for weeks about the looming threat to incarcerated people,” the lawsuit said. “While Gov. Lamont and Commissioner Cook have made attempts to mitigate the dangers posed by the virus, conditions of confinement in prisons prevent them from ensuring the safety and livelihood of those in their care.”
The criminal defense attorneys and the four individuals being held by the state are represented by the ACLU Foundation of Connecticut and attorneys from Yale Law School’s Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic and Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization.