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Dozens of protesters call for prisoner release as first inmate death from COVID-19 reported

East Lyme — Dozens of people, on foot and in their vehicles, participated in "Free Them All" protests at York Correctional Institution in Niantic and the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Montville on Monday morning, calling for the release of prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The protest came just hours before the Department of Correction announced the first death of an inmate from COVID-19.

Protesters withstood heavy rain and high winds to advocate for the release of prisoners, shouting at guards and police that "our people are dying inside."

The protests were the start of a statewide, "week of action" — a series of protests organized by the nonprofit CT Bail Fund that are scheduled to take place at prisons across Connecticut. The protests are being held in a reaction to the announcement by Gov. Ned Lamont on Wednesday that all inmates in state prisons who test positive for COVID-19 will be transferred to an isolation unit at the Northern Correctional Institution.

On Monday evening, the DOC announced that a 62-year-old man who was serving time at the Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers had died Monday from COVID-19. The man was tested for the virus on April 6 and was taken to UConn Health Center for intensive treatment of his illness on April 8. His test came back positive on April 9, the DOC said.

The man had been approved for discretionary release last month but did not have an appropriate home sponsor so was remanded to the prison. He was serving a two-year sentence for criminal possession of a firearm and had underlying medical conditions, said the DOC.

In a statement, the CT Bail Fund said that "quarantining inmates behind bars in a Supermax facility is torture."

"We refuse to accept torture as the statewide public health response to the pandemic growing in CT prisons," said the statement.  As of Monday, 47 inmates had been transferred to Northern Correctional, a high-security state prison in Somers, according to the state.

More than 30 protesters gathered at Samuel M. Peretz Park next to York about 10 a.m., holding banners, displaying signs posted in their car windows, honking their horns and chanting calls for freedom. They gathered near the fence bordering the prison grounds so that inmates could hear them, before going to the road near the prison's entrance.

Tasha Blanco, who was one of the leaders of the protest, used a megaphone to lead chants such as  "free our people, free our people now."

Blanco, a member of the group Building It Together in New London, said she came out to show solidarity for inmates who are trapped inside without protective gear, afraid that they will be exposed to the virus because they aren't able to follow social distancing guidelines in the prison's tight quarters.

"I just wanted to offer support in this horrible time. Support for the inmates, support for their families," said Blanco. "This is a scary situation and I'm worried about how we're protecting everyone in there."

Blanco said she spoke with a fellow protester whose husband is serving time in Corrigan, who said that the inmates have been given makeshift masks made from old T-shirts to use as protective gear.

Jewu Richardson, a member of CT Bail Fund, said the organization's mission is to post bail for individuals who cannot afford it and provide inmates with help with "different injustices that they may be facing while they're on the other side of the wall." The nonprofit helps with donations for commissary funds, care packages and operates a hotline for offenders to reach out for help.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Richardson said the organization's hotline has been flooded with calls from inmates who are scared and anxious and cannot access any protective gear, and are concerned that guards coming in and out of the prison aren't wearing masks.

The CT Bail Fund, he said, is advocating for better equipment to help protect inmates and guards and for the release of all prisoners, regardless of their crimes.

"We want to free them all because what we know right now is that the reality is people are dying from the coronavirus, people are dying every day," said Richardson.

Rather than advocating for non-violent offenders to be released, the nonprofit is asking that the prisons be emptied.

"We don't want to people making those types of calls, of 'this person deserves to live and this person doesn't deserve to live' so we're calling for them all to be free," said Richardson.

After protesting outside of York for an hour, the protests moved to Corrigan about 11 a.m. The group gathered near the prison's main gate, where guards and Connecticut State Police troopers asked the protesters to get off the property.

In a live stream posted to Facebook, one protester can be heard shouting "Our people are dying inside, you have blood on your hands, our people are dying because of you" and another can be heard telling a state trooper "you are a killer, you should be ashamed of yourself" after police threatened to arrest protestors if they did not leave prison property.

In total, 71 correction officers in the state have tested positive for COVID-19, including one at York and 12 at Corrigan, according to the state. The state's data shows 47 positive cases among inmates at Northern Correctional, but no longer breaks down the number of inmates who tested positive at individual prisons.

As of last week, no positive cases had been reported at York. At Corrigan, Steven Wales, union steward for correction officers there, said that the facility had as many as 15 inmates who had positive cases and were being treated in a unit along with anyone showing signs of the disease.

In addition to being exposed to the virus, Blanco said prisoners are suffering emotionally because of a lack of contact with the outside world. Visitations in prisons are not being allowed because of COVID-19.

"All of us right now are looking to have connectivity but prisoners are not given the same grace in that realm," said Blanco. "For people who are incarcerated, being connected to family or the people they care about on the outside is so important."

Their family members on the outside are consumed with worry, said Blanco.

"People are feeling as though their loved ones are not being taken care of and there's a lot of fear and anxiety," she said.

The protests are scheduled to continue on Wednesday at 3 p.m. at the Bridgeport Correctional Center and on Friday at the Northern Correctional Facility, the Carl Robinson Institution, the Osborn Correctional Institution and the Willard Correctional Institution.




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