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As COVID-19 cases surge throughout Connecticut and the country, unions representing more than 5,000 state Department of Correction employees want family visits to inmates temporarily suspended until the agency can limit the number of people in one room at a time.

Sean Howard, president of AFSCME Local 387 who represents 700 correction employees, contends that at times there are more than 20 people in the visiting area at some state prisons.

“We want the visits temporarily suspended until they can figure out a better system,” he said. “The inmate population is starting to get sick again and so is the staff.”

Howard and union presidents Millie Brown of CSEA Local 2001, Collin Provost of AFSCME Local 391 and Michael Vargo of AFSCME Local 1565 issued a press release late Thursday calling for the suspension of the visits until the agency can follow the guidelines laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Gov. Ned Lamont that stipulate only 10 people should be gathered at a time. The visits had just resumed three weeks ago after being suspended in March due to the pandemic.

“We urge the department to suspend social visits on a temporary basis only, until the agency can implement policies and procedures in accordance with the governor’s latest directive,” the joint statement said. “There is no reason to have more than 10 people in any visiting area at this current time.”

The union presidents also want the agency to open up more times to allow staff to be tested. As it stands, every staff member must be tested once every three weeks, Howard said. But staff is only allowed to be tested during a two-hour window on Tuesdays and Fridays.

“It used to be a four- to six-hour window,” Howard said.

As of Thursday, 64 employees had tested positive for COVID-19 in the past seven days and an additional 17 tested positive in the past day, according to figures provided to the union. In total, 572 DOC staff had tested positive as of Thursday and 1,686 inmates had tested positive as of Nov. 6.

“The Department of Correction has made every attempt to provide ample opportunities for employees to get tested as part of the agreement their union leadership made with the state,” Karen Martucci, director of External Affairs for the DOC, said. “Additionally, times and locations were adjusted along the way to accommodate staff schedules.”

The agency is “carefully monitoring” testing data and positivity rates to determine operational plans at each facility, Martucci said.

“Although the overwhelming majority of recent positive employee cases are not correctional officers who are assigned to visiting rooms and interact with the public, we are evaluating capacity numbers in each visiting room to determine if we need to scale back,” she said.

The governor’s order for the maximum people allowed at social gatherings doesn’t apply to correctional facilities, but the agency is continually evaluating COVID-19 protocols, Martucci said.
The number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19, who are hospitalized with the disease or who have died has steadily increased in the past six weeks with 100 towns designated as “red alert” areas with a high number of infections. State officials are urging residents to take precautions including limiting gatherings to 10 people or less.

The call to halt the visits is heartbreaking for family members who just went seven months without being able to see their loved ones who are incarcerated, said Deb Martinez, whose brother Isschar Howard is incarcerated at Cheshire Correctional Institution.

Isschar Howard with his sister, Deb Martinez, and two nephews (contributed)

Martinez hadn’t seen Howard for months until about three weeks ago. She did so with trepidation since she knew that they would be separated by glass as a precaution, she said.

“For many of us, that glass means something extremely negative,” she said. “It means you’ve done something very bad. But I did it because I knew it was important to him and it was important to his mental health.”

Martinez bristled at the thought that families were considered a possible source of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, since the virus has already killed seven inmates and infected hundreds of inmates and staff while the visits were prohibited.

“I haven’t seen more than seven people in a room and family is wearing masks and we are spread out beyond six feet,” Martinez said. “If they are saying visits are responsible, what’s their explanation for COVID when there were no visits?”

The focus should be on better health care for inmates and staff and better cleaning protocols, Martinez said. “The focus should not be on putting up barriers between loved ones and inmates,” she said.

Some staff aren’t wearing masks and units are being combined, which means less space for social distancing, Martinez said.

Her brother is serving a life sentence in two New Haven killings. He has medical conditions that would make him vulnerable to complications if he were infected with COVID-19. But he was determined to be ineligible for home confinement during the pandemic due to his convictions.

Isschar Howard is a mentor in the prison’s T.R.U.E. unit, a specialized program that aims to rehabilitate young inmates to lessen the chance they’ll return to prison.

“I feel like at the end of the day we are not American citizens, we are the last ones to worry about,” Isschar Howard told his sister Thursday.

Union members are wearing masks as directed, Sean Howard said. The unions don’t want the visits stopped for an extended period of time, he said. But they want the number of people in the visiting area reduced to protect staff and family members.

“There can be 10 inmates, 10 family members and three visiting officers in the room at one time,” Sean Howard said. “The CDC guidelines say there should be no more than 10 people in a room, the DOC isn’t adhering to that.”