courtesy ct.gov

Fearing exposure to the coronavirus through air systems and contact with other staff, clerical workers at the state’s prisons are seeking the same protections against COVID-19 as other Department of Correction employees, union officials said Tuesday.

Many clerical employees are working in areas where other custody staff come and go — including correction officers who have contact with inmates — and cleaning measures aren’t being taken seriously, said Mary Haeseler, an identification and records specialist at Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Uncasville.

“The department as a whole is not prepared for this,” Haeseler said. “I’ve worked for the Department of Correction since 1989. I remember the riots, I remember the measles outbreak. I have never seen anything like this in my life.”

As of Tuesday, 118 staff members and 188 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus which has killed close to 675 Connecticut residents including one inmate in his 60s. Many of the inmates who have tested positive have been taken to a medical isolation unit at Northern Correctional Institution after correction officers pointed out 10 days ago that there was no way to quarantine those suspected of having the virus.

DOC officials announced Tuesday that 45 inmates have been returned to their original prisons after recovering. Four staff members who tested positive also are back at work, officials said.

But Haeseler has not been to work in a week after receiving a note from her physician who is concerned that her prior health issues combined with work conditions could put her at higher risk for complications if she contracted the virus, she said.

Her facility has 18 staff and 29 inmates who tested positive for COVID-19, according to DOC data. The ventilation system in the Radgowski building where she works allows air from the dormitory areas to flow into her office, Haeseler said. “You don’t know if you’re breathing in the COVID-19 that’s coming from the housing unit,” she said.

Haeseler also had been using her own cleaning supplies since the agency is running low, and she said areas are not being cleaned as frequently as when the pandemic started affecting Connecticut in March. “When I felt that my health was in danger, I spoke to my doctor,” she said.

Clerical staff were given masks on Friday — weeks after they repeatedly asked to be protected in the same way correction officers and healthcare staff are, said Mark Torres, an identification records specialist for the Parole and Community Services Office in Hartford who is the President of AFSCME Local 704.

“For at least three to four weeks we’ve been advocating that the clericals are given the same protections as custody staff,” Torres said. “There is this notion that because we don’t have direct contact with inmates that we’re aren’t at risk. But we have people who do have contact with inmates in our offices constantly. The social distancing aspect has not been applied.”

There are other safety issues that need to be addressed, clerical workers said. The masks that were issued to all staff aren’t mandatory, and staff that have contact with inmates are routinely coming into the records departments to look up files, said Theresa Stone, an identification records specialist at Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire. 

The DOC has tried to minimize contact between the clerical and records staff and other employees through alternative scheduling and telecommuting, said Karen Martucci, DOC director of external affairs. But the agency must still continue to function, she said.

“Understanding this is a difficult time for everyone, an agency like ours does not have the ability to completely shut down operations,” Martucci said. “It is simply not an option. With that being said, we are working diligently to protect our employees and the offender population we care for as best we can.”

“We value our employees, as well as the unions that represent their membership and will continue to collaborate with all parties as we work through this challenging time,” Martucci added.

The agency repeatedly has tried to procure personal protective equipment including masks, DOC Commissioner Rollin Cook told staff in a memo issued Tuesday. “To be totally candid, I am frustrated by the fact our agency does not have the full inventory of PPEs that it should,” Cook wrote. “Even more disheartening is the thought that some have suggested that I do not care whether or not staff have the protective equipment they need. As someone who is essentially a correctional officer at heart, nothing could be further from the truth.”

Cook went on to say that “we entered this crisis with a strong plan of action which included purchasing the critical supplies needed to keep our staff safe,” but there was no way to anticipate a “worldwide shortage of these items.”

He’d love to supply every employee with an N95 respirator mask, but “the reality is, at this time, I cannot,” Cook said. The pandemic has yet to peak in the state or in the prisons and distributing those masks, which are considered the highest level of protection, for “routine duties” would deplete the supply “in just days time,” he told employees.

Cook also said he has authorized staff to wear their own personal masks from home — an about-face from 10 days ago, when correction officers were told they couldn’t bring in their own masks, union officials said at the time.

“Our biggest challenge is the lack of PPEs. We understand that correction officers and healthcare staff have to be there so they need PPEs,” said Roberta Price, who represents DOC union members with AFSCME Council 4. “But we need to reduce staff, the less traffic going in and out the better. The virus is taking charge, we are now a month later and we’re losing traction. We just can’t get ahead of it and it’s due to the reckless decisions on the part of the administration. They are trying to improve, but now we’re two weeks behind.”