ctnewsjunkie file photo
An empty wing at Osborn Correctional Institute in Somers (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

HARTFORD, CT — Connecticut Attorney General William Tong filed a motion Wednesday to dismiss a lawsuit brought by four inmates and hundreds of criminal defense lawyers who are seeking a court order to release inmates as COVID-19 spreads through the prison system.

Tong argues the complaint should be dismissed because the 300-member Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association has no standing and the original four inmates named as plaintiffs would not be eligible for immediate release under any circumstances.

The lawsuit against Department of Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook and Gov. Ned Lamont claims the state hasn’t moved quickly enough to release vulnerable offenders and those being held on low bond to help stop the spread of the coronavirus from blowing through the state’s prisons.

Some of the four inmates named in the lawsuit are medically vulnerable or are being held on low bond while awaiting adjudication. Two other inmates, a woman with multiple sclerosis being held on $22,000 bond and a man who is due to be released on May 27 have joined the lawsuit as plaintiffs since it was originally filed. 

According to court documents, at least one of the inmates named in the lawsuit wouldn’t be eligible for release until 2024 while he is serving a 15-sentence for a robbery conviction and a second inmate who also has a robbery conviction would be released until February of 2021.

Attorney Dan Barrett, legal director for the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union who is representing the plaintiffs, said they will continue to press their case.

“We are looking for as much relief as we can get, as quickly as we can get it,” Barrett said. A judge will hear oral arguments in the case next week and likely make a decision quickly on whether to grant the dismissal, Barrett said.

If it’s denied the CT ACLU will then look for a quick resolution that includes protecting the remaining 11,600 inmates.

“They are pretending the court can’t fashion any relief other than what the DOC has to offer,” Barrett said. “That’s not true, a judge can determine some kind of relief. They are ignoring the basic question which is what has to be done to keep these people out of harm’s way.”

The Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association signed on as plaintiffs rather than submitting potentially hundreds of individual motions to get their clients released as a way of protecting them from the virus, Barrett said.

“Since the courts are all but shut down, their motions wouldn’t be heard,” Barrett said. “It makes sense to have the lawyers file at once.”

The DOC has been under fire from advocates for incarcerated people and unions representing correction officers and other employees over how protocols to mitigate the spread of the virus are being handled.

In an amended complaint filed Tuesday, Barrett and attorneys representing the inmates and the association said the number of inmates and staff who have tested positive for COVID-19 has grown exponentially even since the first draft of the lawsuit was filed on April 2.

When the complaint was first filed 16 DOC employees and eight incarcerated people had tested positive. “By April 6, those numbers have more than doubled to 32 DOC staff members and 21 incarcerated people,” the lawsuit said. By April 8, 52 staff and 46 incarcerated people have tested positive.

There are a total of 35 inmates who have tested positive and were moved to a unit at Northern Correctional Institute in Somers.

“The steps taken by defendants (Cook and Lamont) are insufficient in light of the grave risks presented by the present crisis, necessitating court intervention,” Barrett argued in court documents..

Cook and DOC officials have released about 800 people since March 1 as the threat of the virus began to press into Connecticut. Since then more than 335 state residents have died and more than 8,700 have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

There are more than 1,000 inmates over the age of 55 including 23 who are between the ages of 76 and 85, according to DOC staff. One inmate is over 90.

The association and the inmates listed as 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, those who are eligible for home confinement and who are within six months of their scheduled release.

Tong’s office will have until April 13 to file its brief supporting the dismissal.