A shuttered wing at Obsorn Correctional Institute. (CTNewsJunkie/file photo)

Inmates and others in state-based congregate settings are slated to be vaccinated for COVID-19 on schedule with other phase 1b groups which include those over 75, essential workers and those with high risk conditions.

Vaccinations for those over 75 have started. But as of Friday, when officials announced an 18th inmate died from COVID-19, the state Department of Correction had no date on when the agency could start vaccinating inmates and staff, according to Karen Martucci, the director of external affairs.

“Based on the challenges presented within congregate settings, we are encouraged to see our agency staff and the population we supervise included in phase 1b of the state’s plan,” Martucci said.

Other congregate settings are expected to start receiving the vaccine in the next week, said the governor’s Chief Operating Officer Josh Geballe Thursday.

But no date has been set for the state’s prisons, Geballe said.

“We haven’t set a specific date there yet, but we are looking at options to start vaccinating particularly the elderly offenders in those facilities sooner rather than later, in line with their general population timeline,” Geballe said. “(DOC) Commissioner (Angel) Quiros is coming up with some creative ways to do that in an efficient manner. That will start in the coming weeks as well.”

Advocates for inmates and their families have been vocal in asking that the prisons move to the top of the list for vaccinations after two lawsuits and five deaths from COVID-19 in the month of January alone.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut filed two lawsuits, one in state court and one in federal court, against Gov. Ned Lamont and the DOC over conditions at the prisons during the coronavirus pandemic. The federal lawsuit was settled with an agreement requiring the DOC to take more steps to keep the prisons clean and identify medically fragile inmates who are eligible for release.

But the agreement and the lawsuit ended on Dec. 31. The monitoring panel that was formed to visit the state’s prisons and report on how well the agency was following the agreement only issued one report and then the was disbanded since attorneys representing Lamont and the prisons refused to allow its work to continue, according to CT ACLU attorneys Dan Barrett and Elana Bildner.

At various points during the pandemic, the unions that represent thousands of DOC employees also expressed concern that the agency didn’t have enough safeguards in place.

As of Friday, there were 274 DOC employees out recovering from COVID-19, according to the agency. Close to 110 inmates were symptomatic and 143 were asymptomatic with 11 in the hospital and 95 in the infirmary at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution.

In total, 3,649 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 since March. The agency is currently housing just over 9,000 inmates.

When the state announced that the vaccine would begin distribution in mid-December, the CT ACLU asked Lamont to consider placing inmates at the top of the list due to their vulnerability in a congregate setting and the previous lack of protections during the pandemic. 

“Connecticut has a moral and legal obligation to protect the lives and health of the people it chooses to incarcerate,” said CT ACLU Campaign Manager Paulette Fox in a letter sent to Lamont on Dec. 2. “Please protect them in your pandemic vaccine rollout plan. Chart a new course, value the lives of incarcerated people, 70% of whom are Black and Latinx, by treating them equally to all residents living within congregate living settings.”

The DOC has been preparing for the vaccine distribution by acquiring the freezers required to keep the vaccines at the specific temperature they need to be safely stored, Martucci said. The agency is currently waging an education campaign for staff and inmates that includes building a website for employees with information on the vaccine, she said.

The DOC has also created a collection of educational videos that will play on a continuous loop broadcasted through the inmate population televisions, Martucci said. “We are currently focused on providing education so people can make an informed decision when the time comes,” said.

But they can’t finalize the rollout without a date, Martucci said. “We have not received a timeline that speaks to the delivery of vaccinations for correctional employees or the inmate population,” Martucci said Friday. “Once we have the additional details we can finalize our implementation plan.”