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    Tuesday, August 09, 2022

    Temporary housing unit set up in Montville prison due to COVID-19 protocols

    Montville — Fifty-one inmates, who are new intakes from the community, are being housed in the gym of Corrigan Correctional Center, a temporary housing unit set up to follow COVID-19 quarantine protocols.

    But union representatives have raised concerns about the safety of staff and inmates. They said they have been warning about an expected backlog of unsentenced inmates due to the pandemic, along with fewer available beds across the state with the closing of two prisons this year.

    Karen Martucci, director of external affairs for the Department of Correction, said the unit, which was set up this past week, is “a brief operational adjustment in order to ensure we adhere to our intake quarantine protocols which are in-line with CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance.”

    She said new intakes from the community are required to complete a 14-day quarantine period, with coronavirus testing at the beginning and end, before they can interact with the overall incarcerated population. But she said there are times when people are identified during that period to be close contacts of someone with COVID-19, as defined by the CDC, and need to extend their quarantine.

    She added that the move is not due to unavailable bed space.

    The DOC closed Radgowski, one of the two prison buildings in Montville, in October and Northern Correctional Institution in Somers in June, and has plans to close a third. Martucci said the courts slowed down with the pandemic and are now operating at a higher rate, but the uptick in the pretrial population has not been impacted by the prison closures, and she said there is "zero overcrowding."

    "The Department of Correction is seeing historical low population counts," she said. "Overcrowding is not an issue."

    According to DOC statistics, there were about 654 confined inmates at Corrigan in October 2021, 615 in September 2021, and 639 in August 2021. There were about 620 in October 2020, 626 in September 2020 and 609 in August 2020.

    Steven Wales, a correction officer at Corrigan and AFSCME Local 1565 vice president and chief steward for Corrigan, said the danger with keeping people in the gym is that if one person tests positive for COVID-19 there, then all the people exposed will need to continue to quarantine. AFSCME Local 1565 is one of three AFSCME local unions representing front-line correctional staff around the state.

    "The gym is not built for the housing unit," Wales said. He added that it doesn't have enough bathroom space and doesn't have showers, so the inmates have to be moved to another place to shower.

    "Nobody wants to sleep on a cot on the floor," he said, adding that the gym was not built with safety features to accommodate a large group of men living together.

    “We do not have anywhere else to put them right now, and obviously that’s done right on the tail of shutting down the Radgowski building, so it seems like pretty poor timing,” he said.

    Michael Vargo, AFSCME Local 1565 president, said there has been an uptick in incidents, including assaults on staff, since September at Corrigan and other facilities where Local 1565 members work.

    Vargo noted that courts are reopening and picking up steam after pandemic closures and slowdowns, bringing an influx of new inmates. "The problem is the county prisons are getting full, and they're running out of space, and we've been complaining for over a year now with these prisons shutting down, you're limiting housing units and beds," he said. He says a facility like Northern Correctional Institution could have been used to house unsentenced inmates, if needed.

    Vargo noted Radgoswki was a dormitory setting, so unsentenced inmates couldn't have been sent there, but Wales pointed out that Corrigan has some sentenced inmates that could have been sent to another facility to free up more space.

    Wales said the closing of Radgowski and Northern limited the overall number of beds available. "There's nowhere to jockey around for position to put these inmates," he said. 

    Martucci said the temporary housing unit at Corrigan is due to pandemic protocols and the need to keep people who are quarantining separate from the rest of the population. She said that while dormitory settings are a little more vulnerable in terms of passing any virus, the 51 inmates sleep in beds spaced out across the room.

    It's not unusual to use this type of temporary housing when needed, she noted, and the DOC has a lower coronavirus positivity rate than the general community.

    She said the DOC still is focusing attention on cleanliness, offering the vaccines and further testing inmates, including before transferring them to another facility, before discharge and before appointments. She said there is mass testing of the entire population every two weeks.

    "The safety of our staff is our highest priority," she said. "We have dormitory settings at all of our jails, and they're staffed appropriately."

    Inmates who test positive for COVID-19 and are asymptomatic will stay in a separate area of the facility, while the symptomatic will be sent to a medical isolation unit at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, she said.

    AFSCME Council 4 also held a news conference in September to call attention to a shortfall of 406 workers across prisons and programs in Connecticut, with projections of nearly 400 eligible retirements next year. Wales said Corrigan is currently pretty full with staff because it absorbed staff members when Radgowski was closed down, but he said it remains to be determined how staffing will be over time.

    k.drelich@theday.com

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