Courtesy of the DOC

State Department of Correction officials have moved the medical isolation unit for inmates who have symptoms of COVID-19 from the state’s most restrictive prison to a more modern facility with better ventilation, according to the agency.

Symptomatic inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 were being transferred to Northern Correctional Institution in Somers, known as the state’s “supermax” prison, to keep them isolated from the rest of the population during the pandemic.

But DOC Commissioner Designee Angel Quiros, a longtime DOC employee, acknowledged that the location was inhibiting some inmates from coming forward with medical complaints related to COVID-19 that could lead them to be isolated at Northern.

“The Northern Correctional Institution has a punitive stigma associated with it even though there has a concerted effort in recent years to reduce the number of offenders sent to the facility for disciplinary reasons,” according to a press release issued Wednesday by the DOC.

Instead the agency has moved the COVID-19 medical isolation unit to the MacDougall building of the MacDougall Walker prison in Suffield, which has a “modern infrastructure, in line with the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines pertaining to the care of incarcerated individuals during the pandemic,” officials said.

The MacDougall building has medical triage areas in the housing units, solid walls and doors and “an efficient ventilation system” which helps prevent the spread of the disease.

Quiros had hinted during the announcement of his appointment as interim commissioner of the agency that he would be moving the COVID-19 medical unit to another facility. His appointment must be confirmed by the legislature.

Since March, 1,500 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 and seven have died. There are 12 staff members now recovering from the virus and hundreds more who contracted the disease. There are seven asymptomatic inmates at prisons throughout the state, according to a DOC spokesperson.

“They are separated from the population at their respective facilities and closely monitored by health services for 14 days prior to being released back into the general population,” said Karen Martucci, Director of External Affairs for the DOC.

The DOC’s handling of the pandemic has drawn sharp criticism from advocates, union members and family members of inmates.

The agency entered into a settlement agreement that included better sanitization, better social distancing, better medical care and the identification of medically fragile inmates for release after being sued twice by the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union.

Quiros also acknowledged that the agency had made “mistakes” in handling the pandemic—including prohibiting showers for COVID-19 positive inmates being held in the Northern CI medical isolation unit.

That unit had been chosen to house symptomatic inmates after unions representing thousands of DOC employees complained that prisoners who exhibited symptoms or tested positive were not properly quarantined to prevent the spread of the disease.

Northern CI was the only option to house the COVID-19 medical isolation unit at the time, Quiros said. “It played an important role in helping to minimize the spread of the virus,” he said. “Thanks to the incredible work of our staff expediting the release of eligible offenders and the lull in infection rates, we have the opportunity to safely free up space with the MacDougall building.”

Northern CI was housing a total of 89 inmates as of Wednesday. The prison has been used for imposing disciplinary actions against inmates including administrative segregation, a form of solitary confinement. The entire prison population is down by about 3,500 inmates since August of 2019, according to DOC data. At 9,500, the population today is about half of what it was at its peak in 2008.