COVID-19 vaccinations will begin next week for Correction Department staff and a limited number of inmates, according to acting Commissioner Angel Quiros who also informed lawmakers Thursday of plans to close two prisons by October.
Members of a legislative panel on nominations quizzed Quiros, Gov. Ned Lamont’s pick to lead Connecticut’s prison system, during a lengthy hearing before approving his nomination for consideration by the wider General Assembly.
Quiros took over as interim head of the agency after the mid-pandemic departure of former-Commissioner Rollin Cook in June. Lawmakers interrogated Quiros on plans to close prisons and his agency’s efforts to protect staff and inmates against the spread of the COVID-19 virus. As of Thursday, 19 prisoners in DOC custody had died as a result of the virus.
Connecticut officials included prison inmates and other residents of congregate settings in Phase 1b of the state’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Many of the agency’s staff members, including correction officers, were also included in the phase as members of the critical workforce. But while the state began the phase by administering vaccines to residents 75 years old or older, officials had been unable to say when vaccinations would begin in prisons.
In his opening remarks, Quiros said the agency would start vaccinating the staff seven correctional facilities on Monday, Feb. 1. At the same time, the agency would begin vaccinating a group of 27 inmates who are l workforce. But while the state began the phase by administering vaccines to residents 75 years old or older, Quiros said.
“There’s 27 individuals and we will be vaccinating them starting on Monday,” he told the committee.
The announcement comes a day after unions representing correction officers and other prison employees hosted an online press conference to blast the agency for keeping them in the dark on vaccination plans.
But despite the union’s call for access to the shots, Quiros told lawmakers that an internal DOC survey suggested that staff uptake of the vaccine may be relatively low. Of the 4,300 eligible staff members surveyed, only about 46% said they planned to take the vaccine and another 15% said they hadn’t decided.
“They cannot be forced to take the vaccination.” Quiros said. “We’re educating, sending out education material and hopefully, we want to get to a higher percentage. Right now, as I’m looking at numbers, we have the potential to end probably around low-60 in compliance for the vaccination. We want that percentage higher.”
During the hearing, Quiros also outlined plans to close two state prisons before the fiscal year ends on Oct. 1. Since taking the helm of the agency, Quiros has suggested that he planned to close at least one prison. He did not specify Thursday which facilities were slated to close but expected to make the news public by mid-February. The state’s county jails and its only female prison, York Correctional in Niantic, will not be considered for closure, he said.
Earlier this month, advocates of incarcerated people renewed a push to close the Somers-based maximum security prison, Northern Correctional Institution.
“I’m listening to just about everybody from our unions, from our frontline staff, from the elected officials, from the advocacy groups of which correctional facilities should shut down,” Quiros said Thursday.
Asked whether he would consider shuttering additional facilities in the future, Quiros did not rule it out, but said future closures would depend on crime trends and the status of the ongoing pandemic.
“I’m comfortable with the first two [closures] in FY2021. It’s going to depend what’s going to happen with the COVID, it’s going to depend on what’s going to happen with this population, if it’s going to increase, it’s going to depend on what happens out in the community if our unsentenced population increases, then I need to have the space,” he said.