The monitors tasked by a federal judge with reviewing how the state Department of Correction is dealing with COVID-19 have yet to issue their first report as the number of cases at the prisons jumped six-fold in the span of a week.
As of Monday, there were 98 symptomatic inmates and 198 asymptomatic inmates system-wide, according to the DOC. Just a week ago, there were 44 asymptomatic inmates when the agency touted its low positivity rate based on the third round of mass testing completed Nov. 13.
The formation of a panel to monitor compliance was one of several stipulations agreed upon to settle a federal lawsuit brought by inmates and the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut against former DOC Commissioner Rollin Cook over the handling of COVID-19 in the prisons.
Under the terms of the settlement, the DOC is required to identify medically fragile inmates for release, provide more soap and cleaning supplies, and find ways to socially distance inmates to prevent the spread of the disease which has killed 5,020 state residents since March.
As part of the settlement approved by a federal judge in July, a five-person panel is required to perform site visits to determine if the DOC is meeting measures to keep inmates safe from COVID-19 and to issue at least three monthly reports. The site visits to four prisons were conducted on Oct. 30 and Nov. 13, the DOC said.
The panel is expected to release its first report later this week, DOC officials said.
The CT ACLU sent the attorney general’s office a complaint letter in late October alleging that the DOC is violating several terms of the settlement by not regularly providing soap to inmates and by inconsistent cleaning measures at several prisons. The letter was forwarded to the panel, said Attorney General William Tong’s office, which is representing Cook and the state in the lawsuit.
“The panel has not completed its first report,” according to Elizabeth Benton, a spokesperson for Tong’s office. “We are not sure what the panel has done with the ACLU letter and will not know until they issue their report. The parties have not yet decided whether to extend the agreement.”
The settlement agreement is scheduled to end on Dec. 31.
When it is issued, the report is not likely to address the outbreak at Cheshire Correctional Institution, which occurred just days after the DOC released its most recent COVID-19 test results.
Family members of incarcerated men at the prison say their loved ones have been on modified lockdown for days and were only allowed to call home on Thanksgiving. As of Monday, the phone calls had restarted thanks to the efforts of the warden who listened to family concerns, said Deb Martinez, whose brother Isschar Howard is incarcerated at Cheshire.
But Martinez said that her brother, who is in the specialized T.R.U.E unit, hasn’t received his test results in eight days. “There is no way to stop the spread if it’s taking seven to 10 days to get results,” Martinez said.
Cheshire had five inmates test positive during the most recent round of mass testing. As of Monday there were 91 asymptomatic and nine inmates with symptoms at the facility, the DOC said.
The outbreak at Cheshire “may” have been caused by increased testing, DOC officials said. “We initiated a new protocol utilizing a rapid test during specific scenarios, like when an offender displays COVID-19 related symptoms,” said Andrius Banevicius, a spokesman for the agency. “This process allows us to quickly identify cases that would have otherwise been missed between rounds of mass testing.”
From March 15, when the first case of COVID-19 was discovered in the state’s prisons to June 26, 1,240 male inmates, or about 13% of the incarcerated population, tested positive. Sixty-two inmates were admitted to the hospital, 20 to intensive care, and seven inmates died, according to a letter in last week’s New England Journal of Medicine, co-authored by Dr. Byron Kennedy, the DOC medical director.
The letter released the findings of a study on Connecticut’s prison system that found inmates in dormitory settings were more likely to contract COVID-19 than those in one or two-person cells.
The statistics the agency released last week indicated that 80 inmates had tested positive during mass testing of 8,647 inmates at 14 DOC facilities from Oct. 6 to Nov. 13 for a positivity rate of just under 1%.
DOC officials attributed the decrease in positive tests on Nov. 23 to staff “adhering” to protocols to mitigate the spread of the virus including mask-wearing by employees and inmates.
The rate jumped to 3% in less than a week.
Since the start of the pandemic in Connecticut, as of Friday, 1,749 inmates have tested positive with eight inmates dying from complications of COVID-19 including a 45-year-old man who passed away in mid-November while serving time for a burglary conviction.