Prisons are unhealthy places all the time, especially during disasters, epidemics, pandemics, and other public health emergencies.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread inside the Connecticut Department of Correction (DOC), Connecticut’s prisons and jails were not healthy places. Senate Bill 1058, a bill introduced in the legislature in 2021, would clarify Connecticut's compassionate release laws to increase compassionate releases during natural disasters and public health crisies. We support Senate Bill 1058 as a necessary but not, alone, sufficient step to ensuring that no one ever dies in DOC custody during a public health crisis again.

During a March 22, 2021, public hearing, Gus Marks-Hamilton, the ACLU of Connecticut's interim campaign manager, testified in support of S.B. 1058. Here is what he told the committee: 

"Good day Senator Winfield, Representative Stafstrom, Ranking Members Kissel and Fishbein, and distinguished members of the Judiciary Committee:

My name is Gus Marks-Hamilton and I am the interim campaign manager for the ACLU of Connecticut’s Smart Justice Campaign. I support several of the bills before this committee today, including Senate Bills 972 and 1059, although I will be directing my remarks in support of Senate Bill 1058, An Act Concerning Compassionate Parole Release by the Board of Pardons and Paroles and Concerning Staff of the Department of Correction.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread inside the Connecticut Department of Corrections, Connecticut’s prisons and jails were not healthy places. The DOC had already been dealing with epidemic levels of Hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS for years, as well as other infectious diseases like MRSA. The inability of incarcerated people to access quality medical care, whether due to budget cuts or unfilled staff vacancies or the end of the relationship with UConn Health, has also been widely publicized.

But when COVID-19 hit, Connecticut’s jails and prisons went to an entirely new level of unhealthiness. Over the course of this pandemic, 19 people have died after becoming infected with COVID-19 while in DOC custody. 4,249 incarcerated people have been infected. At one point, the DOC had a higher infection rate than any municipality in Connecticut.

During this time, Connecticut had options available to move people from incarceration into supervised release in the community.

One such method of discretionary release was compassionate release, which is a mechanism to release people with grave illnesses, diseases, or disabilities, who do not pose a safety risk, back into their communities. But health crises do not affect whether the Board of Pardons and Paroles can grant compassionate release. No matter the public health context, the BOPP must apply the same standards. This is likely why, in the face of the greatest pandemic seen in a century, the BOPP granted 25 compassionate releases in 2020, and denied 20% of the people who applied. This is illogical to the point of absurdity. Several of the people who died from contracting COVID-19 in DOC custody had medical conditions that should have warranted community release. If compassionate release is about respecting the lives of people incarcerated by placing them into healthier surroundings, a pandemic is exactly when compassionate release should be easier to obtain. As the executive director of the BOPP noted, the compassionate release “statutory criteria were not drafted to handle a virus such as this.”

SB 1058 seeks to remedy that. SB 1058 provides that the BOPP shall consider different criteria for considering compassionate releases during disasters, emergency declarations, epidemics, and pandemics, and other public health emergencies. These criteria still require a finding that community risk will be low if the person is released, but they take important context into account. By limiting the risk of serious illness or death for people who are particularly susceptible to the then-existing emergency, this bill respects the lives of people who are incarcerated. It also recognizes that incarcerated people are dependent upon the state for their health, since they cannot change their living environments, cannot socially distance, cannot move freely for safety, and cannot otherwise take the actions that people in communities can choose to keep disease-free.

The ACLU of Connecticut supports SB 1058 as a necessary step to ensuring that no one ever dies in DOC custody during a public health crisis again. By providing a clear path and more appropriate health risk assessment for times when there is a public health emergency, the revised compassionate release standard could save lives. We urge the members of this Committee to support this bill.

Thank you for listening to my testimony today and I would be happy to address any questions."