From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was clear that the conditions of incarceration – close quarters, poor sanitation and cleaning in prisons and jails, closed buildings with poor ventilation, and inadequate medical care even during normal times – placed people who are incarcerated at risk of a serious COVID-19 outbreak. This, combined with the fact that a significant portion of people whom Connecticut has chosen to incarcerate have pre-existing medical conditions or ages that place them at high risk of serious illness from COVID-19, meant that Connecticut had to take swift action to protect incarcerated people during the pandemic. Even before Governor Lamont declared a state of emergency, we were already urging him, the Department of Correction (DOC), Board of Pardons and Paroles, and other criminal legal system actors to release people from prisons and jails to get them out of harm’s way, to stop incarcerating new people, and to take serious measures to protect anyone who remained inside.
Smart Justice leaders recorded videos, joined and organized physically distanced and car-based protests with family members of incarcerated people, held a briefing with medical experts for policymakers, and activated nearly 700 ACLU of Connecticut supporters to try to tell Governor Lamont to take action. Even as national news outlets covered the dire situation in Connecticut, where the state began sending incarcerated people who were sick to the notorious Northern Correctional Institution – a supermax with conditions that had been condemned by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture – the Governor and DOC continued to refuse to create a plan to release people to protect them from COVID-19 and continued to fail to use even basic tactics to protect health inside. When family members of people incarcerated by the state protested Lamont’s inaction, he told them to call him, and turned off his phone line.
In April, the ACLU of Connecticut filed two emergency lawsuits – one in federal court, and one in state court – seeking to force Governor Lamont and DOC to protect people who were incarcerated from COVID-19. In July, the state court approved a settlement agreement in the state lawsuit, McPherson v Lamont, a class action suit on behalf of all people incarcerated by the Connecticut Department of Correction. Most of the terms of the settlement seem like small requirements for human dignity and health, because they are. It is a sad commentary on the state of prison law that it took a lawsuit just to require the basic elements of showers with running water, soap, cleaning supplies for common areas and cells, masks for all incarcerated people, opt-in COVID-19 testing, and requiring all staff to wear masks. Under the settlement agreement, the DOC is required to follow these terms and others through December 31, 2020.
We still firmly believe that the best way to protect incarcerated people from COVID-19 is to release people safely to their loved ones. Prisons are not healthy or safe places at any time, especially during a pandemic. As we continue to advocate for people to be released to make physical distancing possible and to move them out of harm’s way, we will also be holding the DOC accountable to the court-mandated requirements of the settlement agreement.
[This story is part of our 2020 newsletter, in which we look back at the ways we fought to advance and defend civil rights and liberties, and look ahead to the unfinished work that remains. Since this newsletter was written, we have also raised the alarm about the Connecticut DOC's non-compliance with court-mandated requirements and joined family members in calling for incarcerated people to be included in the earliest phases of Connecticut's vaccine rollout plan. You can read the full newsletter here.]