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The state Department of Correction needs to implement more social distancing in dorms including moving bunks farther apart to protect inmates from spreading COVID-19, according to a report issued Wednesday by the panel charged with examining how the agency is handling the pandemic.

The court-ordered panel of five individuals wants to continue its work until at least March based on the findings detailed in its first report, the document said.

“We are reviewing the report with the DOC to assess the recommendations of the panel,” said Elizabeth Benton, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, which was party to the court-ordered agreement. “We agree with the panel that it is in everyone’s best interest to extend the agreement until March 21, 2021.”

The DOC, for the most part, is in compliance with a settlement crafted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut to end a lawsuit against Gov. Ned Lamont and former DOC Commissioner Rollin Cook, the report said.
But there was at least one glaring problem, according to Dan Barrett, Legal Director of the CT ACLU. “The thing that stood out to me is that there is one clear danger zone and that’s the folks in dormitories,” Barrett said.

The same issue that dormitory-style living in prisons placed inmates at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19 was brought up by the DOC’s Chief Medical Officer Byron Kennedy in a letter he recently co-authored on risk factors in prisons.

“Why aren’t they doing the obvious?” Barrett said.

The CT ACLU is also concerned that if the panel remains past the Dec. 31 deadline when the settlement ends, the DOC will expect modified conditions to give their consent to the deal, Barrett said.

“Both sides would want the panel to stick around, but the question is at what price for the plaintiffs,” he said.

The DOC welcomed the creation of the panel which acts as a review board to help shape the agency’s policies regarding the pandemic, said Acting DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros.

“I was in support of the establishment of a monitoring panel as we negotiated an agreement with the ACLU. The panel provides for an external assessment with recommendations that will help guide our response plan,” Quiros said. “It’s nice to see where we are meeting the expectations, but I also know there is always room for improvement and with the help of the panel recommendations, we can implement corrective action.  I am especially pleased to see that the panel’s report made note of the facility cleanliness and mask-wearing of staff and inmates, in addition to a solid practice for quarantine and medical isolation.”

The release of the report comes as the DOC has been dealing with a surge of COVID-19 cases that included the deaths of two inmates in the span of three days last week. In all, 10 Connecticut inmates have died and 2,000 have tested positive for COVID-19 with at least 300 currently either in isolation or in treatment for the virus.

The panel is made up of experts in the field of corrections and correctional healthcare chosen by the CT ACLU and attorneys representing the state in the lawsuit.

Based on site visits at Osborn Correctional Institution, Robinson Correctional Institution, MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution and Hartford Correctional Center in late October and mid-November, the panel’s findings ranged from large systemic issues to mundane matters.

The report found that most correction officers, other staff and inmates are wearing masks and are adhering to cleaning required by the agreement, the report said. But some staff were wearing personal protective equipment incorrectly and few staff members were fitted for N95 masks, which offer a higher level of protection than cloth or surgical masks when dealing with COVID positive inmates, the report said.

Social distancing according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines “appears sparsely implemented” even though several dorm areas in multiple facilities “showed ample room for more social distancing of bunks than was being practiced,” the panel said.

Some social distancing concerns already have been addressed, according to Quiros. “One example of the Department’s efforts is evident at the Osborn facility where we completely reconfigured the bunks and electrical outlets within a dorm in order to increase spacing,” Quiros said.

“Additionally, thanks in part to our focus on discretionary releases, Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution’s population dropped by 77% since March, with 735 less people at that location,” he added. “During the same time period the Radgowski population dropped by 47% with 211 less people, and Carl Robinson’s population dropped by 40% with 526 fewer people at that location.”

The panel concluded that the DOC does have a good handle on quarantining new admissions to the prisons and testing new arrivals before and after their period of isolation; on medical evaluation of sick inmates who are cleared to return to their locations; and on providing isolation space for inmates who test positive.

The agency is also cleaning properly and educating staff and inmates on proper cleaning techniques, the findings said.

But the panel recommended that more staff be fitted for N95 masks, including those with facial hair who are hard to fit. It also wants staff and supervisors to be trained in how to maximize social distancing in the housing areas.

The agency should also use common areas to increase out-of-cell time and create a system that allows staff to recognize which inmates in quarantine are at high risk for complications if they contract COVID-19 without revealing medical information that is considered private, the panel said.

It recommended more screening among medically vulnerable individuals who are housed in cell blocks. The panel’s report said that inmates who are on cleaning details in areas where individuals with COVID-19 are being housed should be fitted for N95 masks and given training in the use of PPE.

The panel is also recommending “town halls” to educate inmates and staff on facility COVID protocols and the creation of an “inmate liaison” committee. Other recommendations include better signage to promote mask use and social distancing and to indicate designated isolation areas.

The panel also wants the DOC to track flu vaccinations among staff and noted that so far, few inmates have been vaccinated against the flu.

The panel did not specifically address a list of complaints that the DOC was not following COVID-19 protocols in accordance with the lawsuit settlement that the ALCU sent to state officials last month.

The work of the group was slated to end on Dec. 31 when the settlement agreement for the lawsuit ended. The panel was supposed to issue three monthly reports prior to disbanding. But the report issued Wednesday was the first that was completed and released.

The panel has indicated that they have future site visits planned at other prisons in December. They felt they should continue oversight until March as the pandemic is continuing and the DOC is preparing to vaccinate inmates for COVID-19.

Barrett said earlier in the week that any extension of the settlement would have to be by agreement of his organization and Tong’s office. Inmates are free to file another lawsuit on Jan. 1 if they are not satisfied with conditions whether or not the settlement agreement runs out, Barrett said.

“It’s not a surprise then they are visiting, so things tend to be clean,” Barrett said. “The report is useful in terms of an overarching view. It’s our hope that the more facilities they visit, the more information we’ll have.”