A judge could decide as early as next week if inmates and a contingent of criminal defense attorneys will prevail in seeking a reduction in the inmate population and other safety measures as COVID-19 blows through state prisons.
Oral arguments took place Wednesday morning by phone, which Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union Attorney Dan Barrett, who is representing six inmates and the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said is an indication of the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic.
A total of 10 attorneys were on the line for the 40-minute proceeding with Barrett and an assistant attorney general stating their case before Waterbury Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis.
“The defendants must prove that COVID-19 is not a serious medical condition,” even as Gov. Ned Lamont has ordered malls, schools and other large gathering places closed, Barrett said. But while Lamont has issued executive orders imposing “extreme measures” on every other aspect of life in the state, he and Cook have failed to address the safety of thousands of inmates, Barrett said.
“Lamont has already announced his own declaration of the seriousness of the pandemic but they have refused to do that in the prisons,” Barrett said.
The plaintiffs, on behalf of the approximately 11,500 people who are incarcerated in the state, are asking Bellis to issue a mandamus ordering Lamont and Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook to reduce the prison population by releasing medically fragile inmates or people who are near the end of their sentences with resources including housing and services.
The lawsuit is also seeking better health care and adequate safety measures, including social distancing for those inmates who remain in the prisons. One inmate has died and close to 200 have tested positive for COVID-19 which has killed close to 700 people in the state of Connecticut, DOC officials said.
Bellis denied an application for an amicus brief brought by the New England Health Care Employees Union District 1199 SEIU, which includes 600 health care employees working in the state’s prisons. The health care employees contended in their brief that they are “chronically understaffed” and have “limited medical resources” in the state’s prisons.
“The important thing is that they showed up in court to support the plaintiffs and say, hey this is dangerous,” Barrett said after the proceeding.
A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would effectively circumvent the executive authority of Lamont and Cook and the legislature along with the Judicial Branch, Assistant Attorney James Belforti said arguing in favor of dismissing the lawsuit.
Belforti contends that the plaintiffs are seeking the release of thousands of prisoners who have been incarcerated by one form of judicial order or another during a time when social services and communities are hunkered down and unable to provide adequate help.
Belforti called the plan “reckless and potentially dangerous” as “the state is trying desperately to make sure we can treat all of our residents including inmates.”
The lawsuit is an attempt to get the court to usurp the power of executive officials to use discretion in making decisions by becoming a “super commissioner” ordering Lamont and Cook to take certain actions, Belforti said. “They are saying you have to exercise your discretion this way,” he said.
Belforti also argued that the CCDLA had no standing since they have suffered no injury. “This isn’t an association of inmates who are seeking redress for a wrong,” Belforti said. The six inmates named in the lawsuit also have no standing since they have no legal right to demand release, he added.
“Their arguments are based on technical and bureaucratic nonsense,” Barrett said after the proceedings. “No official has the discretion to violate the Constitution.”
Bellis said she hoped to have a ruling by the end of the month but was shooting for some time next week. “I appreciate the arguments today,” she said. “I do have my work cut off for me.”
Several of the inmates who signed on to the lawsuit have medical conditions that would make them at higher risk for complications if they contracted COVID-19 which causes fever, cough and shortness of breath.
The 300-member association of criminal defense attorneys represent some of the inmates that are currently being held on bond while awaiting pre-trial court proceedings, Barrett said.
Inmates throughout the prison system are in harm’s way of the pandemic and the court has the ability to “fashion an equitable relief” that doesn’t necessarily have to include a “mass release,” said Barrett. He argued that the current conditions inside the prisons is a violation of the Eighth Amendment which defines cruel and unusual punishment and a statute that requires the governor to take care of prisoners during a civil or health emergency.