Fight over inmate health moves from state to federal court

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Advocates who allege Connecticut prison inmates are being put at risk of COVID-19 are focusing their efforts in federal court.

A state Superior Court judge on Friday dismissed a lawsuit that could have led to the release of those deemed most at danger of contracting the new coronavirus. Judge Barbara N. Bellis ruled that state policies do not rise to the level of a conscious disregard for inmate health or safety.

But there are two federal lawsuits filed by prisoners that allege the conditions violate their constitutional rights.

Dan Barrett, American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut legal director and an attorney in one of those cases, said they are seeking class-action status. He said the state continues to house hundreds of prisoners in dangerous conditions, such as dormitories and bunk rooms where social distancing is impossible.

“You’ve got these really big rooms where, as some of the prisoners have told us, they sleep within 2 to 3 feet of 10 people,” he said.

Connecticut has taken the unusual step of transferring inmates who have tested positive for the virus to a central location. For men, that is the maximum-security Northern Correctional Institution, where they are held in solitary confinement for at least 14 days before being returned to the general population.

In an affidavit for the state lawsuit, inmate Roger Johnson described being allowed out of his isolation cell just once to make a phone call home.

“I didn’t take a shower for two weeks,” he said. “When I asked why I couldn’t take a shower, they said if we took a shower we would get the virus in the air.”

He said back in the dorms, inmates were taking aspirin and Tylenol to try and hide their fevers and avoid being sent to Northern.

Correction Department spokeswoman Karen Martucci said the department’s polices are designed to protect the inmates, noting that COVID-19 patients in hospitals also aren’t allowed to wander freely.

She said inmates in dorms are required to wear masks, but acknowledged that social distancing is a challenge in those facilities.

The state is speeding up releases but needs to be sure that those eligible to be let out early have a place to live and services on the outside to help prevent recidivism, she said.

“In some of these states, they are letting guys out and they have a murder the next day,” she said. “We’ve been talking about it as a balance between public safety and public health.”

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