ctnewsjunkie file photo
A shuttered unit at Osborn Correctional Institute (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut and attorneys representing Department of Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook and Gov. Ned Lamont entered negotiations to settle a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates seeking protections from COVID-19 while incarcerated.

The lawsuit was slated for oral arguments Friday but instead will reconvene on June 1 if an agreement hasn’t been reached, ACLU CT attorney Dan Barretts said

“The court has encouraged the parties in this case to come to the table to negotiate, with the judge acting as arbiter,” Barrett said. “We have a responsibility to our clients – all incarcerated people in the state – to fight with everything we have for releases and other protections from COVID-19 for them. If negotiations prove the quickest way to move people out of harm’s way from COVID-19 in this life-or-death crisis, we will pursue them.”

The move toward negotiations comes on the heels of a U.S. District Court order issued Thursday in Michigan that stipulates that Oakland County jail authorities must provide inmates with better protections against COVID-19, including better social distancing, one person to a cell if possible, more soap, more cleaning in the prisons and better medical care and facilities for people who contract COVID-19.

According to the Michigan ruling, those who are being treated in a prison for COVID-19 must have access to showers, reading materials and phones or tablets to remain in contact with loved ones. Connecticut officials have drawn fire for placing symptomatic inmates in the state’s maximum security prison, Northern Correctional Institution for treatment, with no showers behind locked doors.
The federal lawsuit was filed earlier this month after a state Superior Court judge dismissed a similar lawsuit filed in Aprii. The State Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal of that case.

The plaintiffs, six inmates with health issues including one man who has since contracted COVID-19, are asking the federal court to allow medically fragile inmates to be temporarily relocated to other settings, including halfway houses. They also want better sanitation in the prisons, better medical care for inmates and the release of enough people so that those who remain can properly social distance to avoid getting the disease which has killed 3,582 state residents, including six inmates.

As of Thursday, 689 inmates and 374 DOC staff have tested positive for COVID-19.  DOC officials said that 482 inmates and 330 staff have recovered from the disease. Another 40 inmates are being held in isolation at Northern after testing positive.Testing continues at other DOC institutions.

The Michigan ruling, which also requires jail staff to generate a list of medically fragile inmates and their release options, was entered into the CT ACLU’s lawsuit as evidence.

Advocates, family members of inmates and staff have been critical of the way DOC officials have handled the pandemic in the state’s prisons. Multiple employees said Wednesday that inmates are becoming more aggressive toward staff, blaming the employees for bringing the virus into the prisons.

U.S. District Court Judge Janet Bond Arterton recently denied a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed by state Attorney General William Tong’s Office which is representing Lamont and Cook, paving the way for the action to move forward.

In court papers filed Thursday, Assistant Attorney General James Belforti and Deputy Attorney General Terrence O’Neill, representing Cook and Lamont, argue that the DOC has rigorously sought avenues to release inmates during the coronavirus pandemic, leaving the prison population at about 11,000 as of May – a reduction of 16% since last year at this same time.

The attorneys also said that 281 of the people who have been released since March 1 have re-offended with some returning to prison.

“At this point in time, it would be unreasonably dangerous to the community and the public, and irresponsible to release at one time large numbers of inmates, as the social support networks in the communities in the cities and towns to which these offenders would be released has been dramatically impacted by the COVID-19 public health emergency,” Belforti and O’Neill wrote.

Lamont’s office declined to comment on the possibility of negotiations Thursday. A spokesperson for the DOC did not respond to a request for comment late Thursday.