Advocates are demanding a meeting with Gov. Ned Lamont after the state’s first inmate death from COVID-19 was announced – just a few hours after Lamont, for the second time, canceled such a meeting to discuss the release of more inmates as the virus begins to move through state prisons.
State Department of Correction officials announced Monday afternoon that the first inmate died of the novel coronavirus – a man in his sixties who was eligible for release last month but had no place to go.
Lamont had been scheduled to meet with several advocacy groups seeking better protections for inmates and the release of those who are medically fragile or near the end of their sentence about six hours earlier.
Lamont’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
DOC officials reported that 166 inmates — an increase of more than 100 individuals over the weekend — have tested positive for COVID-19. So have 104 staff. “We’re not asking any more, we’re demanding a meeting,” said Kenyatta Thompson, lead community organizer for the Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice.
Representatives from advocacy groups including family members of those who are incarcerated have been staging car parade protests at the governor’s mansion seeking to meet with Lamont after he said last week they should call him rather than jam up his street with cars.
But the groups said that Lamont cancelled an April 9 meeting and then cancelled Monday’s meeting about 30 minutes before it was supposed to take place. Lamont instead took part in a teleconference with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and governors of surrounding states to discuss how to reopen the northeast region if the spread of the virus lessens in the coming weeks and months.
He hasn’t rescheduled, according to Gabriel Sayegh, also with the Katal Center. “We want a meeting,” Sayegh said. “We’re in a crisis where every day does matter.”
Representatives from the Katal Center, Stop Solitary CT, One Standard of Justice and Second Chance Educational Alliance planned to present a document recommending the release of thousands of inmates, including those with less than a year remaining to serve and 1,556 people in prison for technical violations.
The document drafted by Joseph Gaylin, a Dwight Hall Criminal Justice Fellow at Yale University and a steering committee member of Stop Solitary CT, estimates there are 3,089 more who are being held without having been sentenced. Gaylin also concludes that vast numbers of the 5,314 inmates who are parole-eligible should be released.
The groups further question the use of Northern Correctional Institution, the state’s super-maximum security prison, to house inmates who test positive for COVID-19. So far, DOC officials haven’t communicated how prisoners will be transferred back into the general population or if they will be held in isolation, akin to solitary confinement, while being treated for the virus, the paper said.
“This failure in communication and the punitive nature of Northern C.I. will ultimately disincentivize incarcerated people from self-reporting COVID-19 symptoms due to (the) well warranted fear of the punitive conditions at Northern C.I.,” the document said.
The groups want a coordinated effort to get people housing in concert with their release, and a loosening of restrictions on who can be a sponsor for someone who is on track to be released. The male inmate who died of COVID-19 had been approved for discretionary release into the community last month but “an appropriate home sponsor could not be located by the offender,” DOC officials said. “As a result he had no place to stay upon release and remained in the facility.”
The inmate’s name was not released. The man entered the correctional system on March 13, 2019, and was serving a two-year sentence for criminal possession of a firearm, DOC officials said. He was taken to UConn Health on April 8 and died Monday. Officials said the inmate had pre-existing “underlying medical conditions.”
Those who are over 65 or have medical conditions prior to contracting the virus are more likely to have complications or die, according to state health officials. More than 600 Connecticut residents have died from COVID-19 since March 1.
“My sympathies go out to the offender’s family,” DOC Commissioner Rollin Cook said. “One death is too many, he joins the more than approximately 600 Connecticut residents who have lost their lives to this tragic disease. We will continue to do everything possible to keep offenders and staff safe.”