In March, the ACLU of Connecticut filed a lawsuit on behalf of everyone incarcerated in Connecticut’s prison system, to stem the tide of COVID-19 infection inside the system. On July 20th, the United States District Court approved a settlement of the lawsuit. The settlement came into force on the day the court approved it, July 20th, which means it was not in force before that date, and it will expire on December 31st.
The hard truth is that the settlement’s terms do not include the thing we hoped for most — release of people to their loved ones. That fight continues, and we continue to believe that the best way to protect people from COVID-19 in prisons and jails is releases to ensure physical distancing.
In other words, the settlement agreement’s terms are a floor, not a ceiling, for what the Department of Correction (DOC) and State of Connecticut should be doing to protect people who are incarcerated from COVID-19. The settlement’s terms mean the DOC is legally required to do things now that previously were dependent solely on the DOC’s discretion and self-reporting in press releases. Most of these terms seem like small, fundamental 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 these basic elements for people’s health. For example, the DOC is now legally required to allow everyone to shower at least every other day in running water – a basic human dignity that shouldn’t take a lawsuit to require, yet the DOC previously was not letting people shower if they tested positive, and was at one point forcing people to use buckets of water to “shower” outdoors at some prisons. Now, the DOC is legally required to provide people with the chance to shower. If we were to find through people who are incarcerated, their loved ones, the monitoring panel, or another member of the public that the DOC wasn’t complying with that mandate, the settlement makes it possible to force the DOC to provide showers.
There are also many, many other things that we and others believe the state must do beyond the floor set by the settlement agreement, including releasing people who are incarcerated, stopping transfers to the supermax Northern Correctional Institution, and preventing new people from being incarcerated in the first place. And at the same time that those things must happen, so must the legal basics required in the settlement agreement.
The settlement terms require that the Department of Correction do these things in every unit of every prison or jail:
- Distribute soap weekly without asking, and upon request within twenty-four hours
- Clean all common areas twice per shift on first and second shift
- Provide cleaning products twice a week for people to clean their cells, cubicles, or dorm areas if they would like to do so
- Allow everyone to shower at least every other day in running water
- Provide cleaning supplies to wipe down phones before each use
- Provide two masks to each person, with the ability to exchange one mask weekly for a new one
- Require all staff to wear masks when they can’t socially distance (exempt only if medically necessary).
- Each month between then and now, DOC must also report the total number of people tested at each facility since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the number of positives and negatives resulting from those tests.
(If you would like a copy of the settlement agreement, it is on our website here.)
The settlement also creates a monitoring panel comprising five people who are required to review the steps taken by the Department of Correction and to make recommendations based on medical science and public health best practices. Under the agreement, two of the monitoring panel members are chosen by the ACLU, and two are chosen by the Department of Correction; the fifth is chosen by consensus of the four. The ACLU of Connecticut chose Jaimie Meyer and Homer Venters, two physicians with extensive experience. The DOC chose a warden, William Mulligan, and its chief doctor, Byron Kennedy. As of now, the four are in the process of choosing the fifth member. While we do not have control over the monitoring panel, we want the process to go faster and to have the monitoring panel in place as soon as possible.
At the same time, the monitoring panel is not the only way to hold the DOC accountable to the terms of the settlement agreement, although it is the only option that is independent and that is required to report to the court. Another critical part of holding the DOC accountable is people reporting directly about what they are seeing and experiencing inside.
We have no illusions about how hard it will be to hold the DOC accountable. Getting the DOC to follow the minimums required in the settlement agreement is going to require constant vigilance. We are committed to holding the DOC’s feet to the fire, and that requires help from everyone with knowledge of what is happening inside, because we cannot be in every prison or jail unit during every shift. If you or your loved one are incarcerated, we want to know about whether and how your or your loved one’s facility is complying with the settlement terms. We’ve set up an email address and phone line, because the more people share about what is happening, the better chance we all have of holding the DOC accountable to the settlement. You can email us at prisoncovid AT acluct.org, or leave us a voicemail at (860) 523-9146 x.6. We want and need to hear from you.