Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut and the state settled a federal lawsuit Sunday brought on behalf of medically fragile inmates.
The agreement, according to the ACLU, requires the Correction Department to prioritize elderly and medically vulnerable people for release programs, provide certain hygiene and sanitation practices, and institute to other human rights requirements.
Under the agreement, the DOC is required to: identify people age 65 and above and people at a medical risk scale of 4 or 5 and fast track those people for consideration for release.
The Correction Department is also supposed to provide regular access to showers with running water, including for people who have tested positive or are presumed positive and institute a system-wide cleaning schedule. The agency is also expected to provide two free bars of soap and ensure people have at least two clean and functional masks at all times.
Gov. Ned Lamont said the settlement indicated the DOC was acting appropriately as it released inmates during the public health crisis. “The settlement affirms the approach the Department of Correction has been taking since the beginning of the pandemic,” Lamont said in a statement issued Sunday. “The department will continue to act in this responsible manner as identified by the court and by this settlement.”
Attorneys for the plaintiffs, medically fragile inmates seeking better and cleaner conditions said the agreement will lead to greater protections but more work needs to be done.
“People who are incarcerated are people, with human rights, dignity, and healthcare needs,” said Dan Barrett, the ACLU of Connecticut’s legal director and an attorney on the case. “It is critical for the State of Connecticut to protect people who are incarcerated from COVID-19, and it is our hope these new measures will protect people from COVID-19 while also treating them with dignity.”
However, ACLU Executive Director David McGuire, said the agreement still falls short of their goal for more widespread releases.
“The legislature must pass a pandemic response plan for Connecticut prisons and jails that includes much broader releases than those mandated in this agreement,” McGuire said. “The State of Connecticut must also take every step to prevent new people from being churned into prisons and jails once the courts reopen. This pandemic has laid bare that Connecticut prisons and jails, as incarcerated people and their loved ones have been saying for decades, are unhealthy, unsafe places for anyone to be.”
DOC and state officials have drawn fire from families of inmates and the unions representing employees for the way the agency is handling the public health crisis. At one point a few weeks ago, the DOC was denying indoor showers to inmates in quarantine and didn’t let inmates who had tested positive for COVID-19 shower while they were being held in isolation at Northern Correctional Institution. Unions representing correction officers and other employees have been vocal about misguided protocols that they contended place staff and inmates in greater danger including requiring non-essential staff to remain in the facilities full-time.
Lamont said early on that no additional efforts would be undertaken to release large numbers of prisoners and that the DOC would work within normal channels to bring people back into the community.
But experts said more inmates could safely be released if state courts resume pre-trial proceedings for those held on bond and the DOC undertook other measures.
Pre-trial admissions to prison are down during the coronavirus pandemic, which may be one driving factor in the reduction of 2,000 inmates since March 1 bringing the state’s prison population to the lowest level in 30 years.
But there are several other factors – including that pre-trial releases are equally down because court proceedings have been stalled for all but priority matters due to COVID-19 – that should be playing a role in shaping how state officials can further reduce the prison population, according to Michael Lawlor, the former chair of the Judiciary Community and the former Undersecretary for Criminal Justice for the state Office of Policy and Management.
“People who are sitting in prison on pre-trial aren’t getting let out because there is no way to resolve their cases at court,” Lawlor said.
In April 2019, 477 people who were being held at a DOC facility while their case was still in the pre-trial phase went to court and didn’t come back because the charges were either dropped or the case was resolved, Lawlor said.
This April, as the courts were offering limited functions to reduce the spread of COVID-19, only 38 people being held on pre-trial went to court and didn’t come back to prison, Lawlor said. The rest of the people remain held on bond, he said, with no way to secure release through a court date.
“There are also no newly sentenced people coming in,” Lawlor said. “That is accounting for part of the drop in population.”
Lawlor acknowledged that the DOC has increased the number of people who were given discretionary releases and 45-day furloughs during the pandemic. But he said the agency probably could have safely released 4,000 people in the same time frame.
“I think they could do more,” Lawlor said. “I think they could safely reduce it by a significant number next month. They could have done 4,000 and been that aggressive and not created any problems in the community.”
As of last Tuesday, 870 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 including seven inmates who have died. Several hundred staff members also tested positive since late March.
Two lawsuits, one of which was settled Sunday, contended that the DOC hasn’t done enough to release inmates, particularly medically fragile people who are most at risk from complications or death from COVID-19.
“I am pleased about the agreement,” Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook said. “Both parties came to the table with mutual interest in codifying practices that best protect people who are incarcerated and the dedicated employees that care for them. Unity and collaboration will always prevail. Today is an example of that.”
Cook said his staff have “selflessly performed their essential duties to ensure the health and safety of those entrusted to our care” and he believed their actions “saved lives.”
Attorney General William Tong was also on board with the settlement. “We are pleased the parties were able to work together to resolve these difficult issues collaboratively and with the best interests of all involved,” Tong said.
The DOC contends that the agency has made historic efforts to release people as the public health crisis ramped up in the state.
Throughout the period of March 1 through May 22, the number of people being held on bond for pre-trial dropped from 3,049 to 2,765 – a reduction of 284, or about 9 percent. At the same time, the number of sentenced inmates who were released totaled 1,556 – a reduction of about 17 percent. The total effect was a reduction of 1,910 inmates including 70 special parolees or others who were being held for other jurisdictions.
“It is essential that we continue to release offenders in a responsible and systematic manner, making sure whenever possible that they have places to live and access to the services they need,” Cook said in a press release. “The impressive and substantial decrease in our population speaks volumes about the caliber and hard work of our staff, as well as that of our partners in the criminal justice community.”
While Cook was attributing the reduction to staff efforts, a report drafted by the OPM’s Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division, the number of pre-trial admissions to the DOC has plummeted by about two-thirds since February as arrests also decreased during the pandemic.
In February, 1,030 people were admitted to the DOC for pre-trial proceedings while being held on bond. The number dropped to 721 in March and 281 in April – which reduced the number of people that would ordinarily come into the system by about 1,000 during those two months alone.
But at the same time, the number of people already being held on bond for pre-trial proceedings barely decreased, according to figures provided by the Criminal Justice Information System.
The Office of the Chief Public Defender has worked with the Judicial Branch to get people released who were being held on bond, said Chief Public Defender Christine Rapillo.
“This was mostly done through bond and sentence modification motions but some cases were nolled or had other resolutions,” Rapillo said. “We started with folks on low bonds and got several hundred people out. Lawyers also filed contested motions on higher bonds and were successful in some cases.”
A system of video conferencing pre-trial proceedings will likely help some defendants get out if attorneys can speak to their clients within the guidelines of confidentiality, Rapillo said. “Since incarcerated people are not being transported to court, it is very difficult to get cases resolved outside of getting the charges dropped,” she said.
The DOC announced this week that since March 1, the number of inmates has decreased by 2,000, leaving the population at 10,400 as of June 2. It’s the lowest number of inmates in 29 years and about a 50 percent decrease of the prison population since its peak in 2008.
Agency efforts to reduce the population included what DOC officials said was a 51 percent increase in the number of people who were given discretionary releases this April, compared to April 2019. Cook also signed “a policy exception” allowing people to be furloughed up to 45 days before their release date if they are serving a sentence of two years or less, DOC officials said.
But advocates for inmates contend that the DOC is releasing about the same number of people they usually do on a monthly basis and that the agency could do more.
“It’s business as usual,” said Melvin Medina, Public Policy and Advocacy Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. “They usually release 350 to 500 people on discretionary release a month. If that’s what you do all the time, what is the ‘unprecedented’ effort you are doing to save people in prison from the threat of COVID-19?”