WETHERSFIELD, CT — Dozens of front line Department of Correction employees rallied during a 40-vehicle “public safety caravan” outside the agency’s headquarters Friday seeking better protections for correction officers, healthcare staff and other workers dealing with COVID-19 inside Connecticut’s prisons. The action was the latest in weeks of unions sounding alarms as infections spread within the system.
But agency officials say the administration already has acted on many of the unions’ demands and now are trying to stress that everyone must work together during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook called for a suspension of hostilities between the administration and the unions without agreeing to any of their demands for greater protections. “I believe that our frontline medical and correctional staff are the unsung heroes of this pandemic, and on a daily basis are performing selflessly under extremely trying circumstances,” Cook said. “Surviving this crisis will require all of us to work together. Labeling issues as demands creates a division that is counterproductive to any partnership. If ever there was a time to promote unity, it’s right now.”
As of Friday, 282 staff members and 357 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Two inmates have died, including one who passed away Saturday morning, DOC officials said. Both men were in their late 50s or early 60s and had pre-existing conditions, officials said. Statewide, the virus has caused more than 1,700 deaths.
DOC officials said 43 staff members have recovered and returned to work while 170 inmates who were taken to Northern Correctional Institution to be isolated have been returned to their original prisons after being medically cleared.
Officials and members from SEIU Healthcare 1199 NE, AFSCME Council 4 and CSEA said the agency has been lax in its response to the pandemic and didn’t move to isolate inmates with the disease until they began speaking out. Union members also pointed out that several recruits in the correction officer training academy were infected with COVID-19 because they say the administration had no plan for dealing with social distancing or isolation if anyone in training became ill.
“As a mom, I can tell you that the fear of bringing the virus home to our families is huge,” said Correction Officer Sherine Bailey, a member of AFSCME Local 391. “Having an adequate supply of proper personal protective equipment is a big concern for everyone. The inmates and staff both have fears, so interpersonal communication skills are becoming more important than ever. We need more tools and better protocols to protect staff, inmates and our communities.”
Union officials have said repeatedly that the agency is not supplying enough PPE including appropriate masks and gowns for those who must deal with COVID-19 positive inmates. Union officials want staff and inmates who have been exposed to the disease to be quarantined until they can be tested.
“Surviving this crisis will require all of us to work together,” said Karen Martucci, director of external affairs for the DOC. “Union versus management is not the right path and it creates animosity that undermines our ability to courageously perform our duties for our community.”
Martucci said symptomatic inmates are quarantined and then transported and isolated at Northern once they test positive. Staff dealing with those inmates received protective gear including an N95 respirator mask, she said.
But union officials pointed out earlier in the week that a correction officer was allowed to work an overtime shift guarding an inmate with COVID-19 at a hospital and then he arrived at work without changing his uniform or taking any other precautions to protect inmates or employees.
Union officials also want staffing levels inside the prisons reduced to allow for social distancing but the agency is requiring some staff who could work from home to show up at the prisons on a daily basis.
“Due to the concern of the coronavirus spreading, most of what I do has been suspended,” said Laura Dawson, a social worker at York Correctional Institution and union steward. “Group sessions with inmates do not allow for physical distancing. It does not make sense to put social workers and inmates at risk by having us work at the prison when most of my job functions have been suspended. The other parts of my job that I am still doing can be done remotely, for example, program planning.”
“My fellow social workers and I are proud of our work,” Dawson said. “We simply want to do what makes sense for everyone’s health and safety which is minimizing exposure within the facility.”
The unions want more coordination in moving inmates so that staff are protected and more people whose positions are not considered to be “hazardous duty” to have the ability to work from home.
Martucci said transfers have been limited since the pandemic began and that as many employees as possible have been shifted to alternating work schedules or telecommuting.
But union members said the adjustments are few and not proactive enough.
“As workers on the front lines, we best understand the struggles of being in these facilities day in and day out,” said Kelly Schafer, a DOC clinical social worker. “DOC management doesn’t know what it’s like being in these facilities on a daily basis. People are scared for their lives. We came together as a union to offer solutions that would keep everyone safer and make the situation more bearable, but management is either refusing them or aren’t moving quickly enough to be effective.”