A now vacant block at Osborn Correctional Institute in Somers

The state Department of Correction is considering asking retirees to fill vacancies as the number of employees out with COVID-19 jumped to over 1,000 this week.

The agency is “exploring all options to maintain safe staffing ratios at the facilities,” said DOC spokeswoman Ashley McCarthy.

Those options include pulling employees from specialized units and looking for retirees to fill positions, McCarthy said.

“Our agency has been impacted, just like many other employers in the nation,” DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros said. “My focus is on supporting our facilities as we move through another wave of this pandemic.  Our staff continue to work tirelessly to keep our facilities and the individuals in our custody safe and secure.”

But union officials and some family members of people who are incarcerated are expressing concern over conditions at the prisons as 1,032 DOC employees are out with COVID-19, including 632 correction officers and 41 nurses.

Only a week ago, the agency posted on its website that 468 staff were out with COVID-19. Since then, the number of people out has jumped to nearly one-fifth of the DOC workforce, according to state figures.

The result has been correction officers and others working 16-hour shifts several days in a row, said Sean Howard, president of AFSCME Local 387 and a correction officer at Cheshire Correctional Institution.  

“The level of people out is worse now than when we went through it earlier,” Howard said. “Staff morale is at an all-time low. People are doing double, triple and quadruple shifts. The staff that aren’t sick are covering for the staff that are and we are burnt out.”

The agency has spent $93 million in overtime in 2021 – the highest amount of any state agency, according to the state Comptroller’s Open Payroll website.

The bottom line, Howard said, is that the agency, which was already short-staffed, should have been consistently hiring employees for years since about 400 staff will be eligible to retire this year. “We’ve been beating this drum for five or six years and now it’s 2022 and the DOC is not prepared for that and they weren’t prepared for this last wave of COVID-19,” Howard said.

Howard and several other union leaders representing a wide array of corrections staff held a press conference in September asking Quiros and Gov. Ned Lamont to hire staff based on safety concerns.  

Lamont’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Throughout the pandemic, several hundred staff had tested positive for COVID-19, but the number out sick at one time never rose above a few hundred.

The number of inmates who tested positive has also increased – but not as dramatically. 

As of Monday there were 181 symptomatic inmates that were in the medical unit at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution and another 320 inmates were asymptomatic and isolating at the prison where they are housed. As of Friday, there were 197 symptomatic inmates and 402 asymptomatic inmates.

The agency has recently hired staff which has off-set some of the absences, McCarthy said Monday. 

Others have volunteered to take shifts, McCarthy said. “Our staff have answered the call to action, volunteering to fill posts in support of the facility,” McCarthy said. “As an agency, we are prepared to continue to manage our staff in the event the numbers continue to increase. However, with the new CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance in effect, we are seeing staff returning back to work.”

The staff outages are weighing heavy on family members who are concerned about their loved ones behind bars. Inmates in some prisons are only coming out to shower and make phone calls, several said.

“They couldn’t have learned from the last two years, they had plenty of time to prepare,” said Deb Martinez who has a brother in Cheshire Correctional Institute. “It’s a reflection upon the culture of the Department of Corrections that needs to change. The people in their care and the people who work for them matter.”

Martinez wants to know why the agency didn’t have a comprehensive plan when the state’s COVID-19 positivity rate began to jump a few weeks ago to the highest levels Connecticut has experienced during the pandemic.

“Extended lockdowns, lack of connection and resources lead to potential suicide attempts, fights and assaults on staff,” Martinez said. “That leads to an increase in lawsuits, additional medical care at a time when hospital beds are filling up.”

Running a prison system is not like “running a 7-Eleven,” Martinez said. “The health, well being and safety and security of staff and the residents should always be the most important things and allowing the department to get to these types of numbers is dangerous and fiscally irresponsible.”

Janet Espisito’s son is also at Cheshire. She has only been able to talk to him for about 15 minutes a day since he has limited time to shower and make phone calls, she said. “With all the lockdowns I get one 15-minute phone call if I get that,” Espisito said. “During holidays they are on lockdown, that’s all they have is each other. They have one hour to take a cold shower and make a phone call. It’s inhumane.”

Martinez and Espisito credit Warden Jennifer Reis with keeping families informed and correcting problems quickly like getting the heat and hot water fixed when it went out on Christmas. “The warden is very attentive and she’s a wonderful person,” Espisito said. “But she’s only one person, there’s only so much she can do.”

The situation at Brooklyn Correctional Institution appears to be better, said Ashley Turner who has a loved one incarcerated there. 

“I’m honestly super surprised at how well Brooklyn is handling COVID,” Turner said. “They are out several units on quarantine but I know for me personally, my loved one works in the kitchen so he’s an essential worker and they rapid COVID test him daily. He recently was able to get his booster shot and because he gets tested daily they still are allowing us our video visits when typically under quarantine they wouldn’t be allowed to.”

Correction officers are doing everything they can to stop the spread of COVID-19 including following Lamont’s directive that everyone must be vaccinated or test weekly, Howard said. It’s been a challenge dealing with staff shortages while making sure inmates have as much time out of their cells as possible, he said. “I have nothing but a lot of pride and a lot of respect for these guys,” Howard said of his co-workers. “I’m very proud of them. They really have stepped up during this.”