ctnewsjunkie file photo
Shuttered wing at Osborn. (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

The state Department of Correction is violating a court-approved agreement to keep inmates safe from COVID-19 by infrequently handing out soap, allowing staff to disregard mask use and by denying showers to individuals who may have symptoms of the disease, according to a letter filed with state officials by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.

“These systematic patterns of non-compliance are particularly alarming given rapidly rising positivity rates across Connecticut – and within DOC, as evidenced by the recent outbreak at Hartford Correctional Center,” CT ACLU attorneys said in the letter. “Compliance is getting worse, not better, and just as COVID-19 positivity rates spike again in Connecticut.”

The organization and the state entered into a settlement agreement on what measures the DOC was required to take to ensure inmates were being kept safe from COVID-19 after the CT ACLU filed a federal lawsuit in June.

To date 1,624 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, and with seven have died. Several hundred staff members also tested positive, including 55 who are currently recovering, according to the DOC website. The state has recently seen an uptick in the number of residents testing positive for the disease which has killed 4,595 statewide since March. The number of hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 has also increased in the past four to six weeks.

The agreement approved by a federal judge detailed several steps the DOC would have to take during the coronavirus pandemic to keep inmates safe including providing more soap to inmates, more cleaning of common areas and more social distancing.

“The ACLU agreement includes the establishment of a monitoring panel which is responsible for making recommendations related to mass testing strategy, quarantining/cohorting, and sanitation/sanitization,” DOC officials said in a statement issued Wednesday.

“The ACLU letter is being referred to the panel and therefore we look forward to their initial findings which will better address the allegations made by inmates listed within the letter received last week by the ACLU,” DOC officials said. “We are not aware that any of these alleged violations have in fact occurred and are currently looking into them. We are committed to adhering to the original agreement, which mainly included provisions already in place as part of the agency’s COVID-19 response plan. The health and safety of our population and employees remain our top priority.”

Acting DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros sent a memo to staff on Oct. 14 asking them to continue to be vigilant about taking precautions against the spread of the disease, including wearing masks and frequent handwashing.

Quiros recently moved the medical isolation unit to another facility because inmates were hiding symptoms out of concern they would end up at Northern Correctional Institution, the state’s super maximum prison where those who tested positive for COVID-19 were being held.

For a period of time, inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 were being denied showers – a practice that Quiros later said was a “mistake.”

But CT ACLU attorneys Dan Barrett and Elana Bildner who represented the inmates in the lawsuit contend in a six-page letter sent to the attorney general’s office that inmates in restricted housing are not receiving showers every other day as required by the agreement and that inmates in quarantine conditions at Osborn Correctional Institution and Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center “are not being allowed to shower at all.”

The CT ACLU also said that the distribution of soap has been spotty with inmates being told to sign for “care packages” that include hygiene supplies that were never distributed. The settlement agreement calls for inmates to receive soap once a week without asking and within 24 hours upon request.

Mask use by staff is inconsistent throughout the state’s prisons with some only donning face coverings when a supervisor is nearby, the attorneys said. The reports that even medical staff are working without masks were confirmed by attorneys who have been in the facilities. When similar reports surfaced in August, DOC officials said that staff are allowed to work without masks if they can social distance while doing their jobs.

“The mandate to wear masks is an explicit provision of the agreement,” Barrett and Bildner said. “Short of releasing people from custody, it is also one of the most critical factors – if not the most critical factor – in halting transmission of COVID-19 within DOC facilities.”

Some people estimated that between 10 and 50% of staff are not wearing masks at the DOC’s 14 facilities, the letter said.

Lawyers indicated that mask distribution to inmates is also spotty with reports that some people have been wearing the same masks for months and others reporting that they have received only four masks since March when the coronavirus pandemic began to spread in the state. Inmates are supposed to receive a minimum of two masks or cloth barriers with one mask to be exchanged each week for a new one or upon request if a mask is torn or damaged, according to the agreement.

“Some people at New Haven (Corrections Center) and Cheshire (Correctional Institution) routinely wear masks that are several weeks old,” the attorneys said. “We have also received reports that people in custody are being denied masks when requested.”

The DOC is also not regularly cleaning common areas or giving inmates products to clean their cells, the letter said. Some facilities are being cleaned once per shift, others are being cleaned at random intervals and there have been “consistent reports” of little or no cleaning of showers across the facilities, according to the attorneys.

Testing and quarantining is also a problem with some inmates without test results being placed with inmates who already have tested positive for COVID-19, the letter said. People admitted to the DOC are supposed to be quarantined for 14 days before joining the general population and those who test positive are supposed to be isolated and medically monitored, according to the agreement.

“We continue to receive reports that people who have tested positive are being placed in conditions that constitute punitive isolation,” the attorneys said.

The CT ACLU wants the terms of the agreement followed. Monitoring is showing that rather than getting better, violations are racking up, Barrett and Bildner said.

“We expect the deficiencies to be remedied, and promptly,” the attorneys said. “Needless to say, it is in the Department of Correction’s interest to fulfill its obligation under the agreement fully and completely, and do everything possible to stem the transmission of the virus.”