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Prison staff say conditions remain unsafe at state facilities

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Front-line workers at state prisons in Connecticut say they continue to toil under untenable conditions due to staff shortages, chronic lack of personal protective equipment and an inmate population that often blames them for bringing the coronavirus into facilities.

Members of unions representing approximately 4,500 correction officers, medical staff and clerical workers said during a virtual news conference Wednesday morning that they continue to feel unsafe and unsupported on the job.

As of Wednesday, 373 staff members and 684 inmates within the Department of Correction have tested positive for COVID-19, and six inmates have died from the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Of the staff members who tested positive, 319 have been cleared to return to work. 

The number of positive cases is expected to increase in coming weeks as the department carries out mass testing that began last Wednesday at the Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers, where officials said 105 inmates without symptoms tested positive for COVID-19. Testing is getting underway at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Montville, where 102 inmates have tested positive since the pandemic began.

Seventy-four inmates have recovered and returned to Corrigan-Radgowski after receiving treatment in an isolation unit at the Northern Correctional Institution in Somers. The DOC reported in April that seven staff members at Corrigan tested positive for COVID-19. Updated numbers were not immediately available.

The DOC has reduced its population to 11,433 inmates, the lowest count in decades, but staff said social distancing still is impossible, with inmates housed in two-person cells or dormitory settings, and in some cases congregating for meals and recreation.

"When these inmates are out eating, they're not wearing masks, and the stools they sit on are at best 2 feet apart," said Steven Wales, a correction officer at Corrigan and corresponding secretary for AFSCME Local 1565.

Inmates who test positive for the virus are walked through prison hallways that are then wiped down by prison workers, but not effectively sanitized, Wales said. The DOC continues to transfer prisoners among facilities, and Corrigan recently received inmates from the Brooklyn Correctional facility who had the virus, he said.

Tensions are continuing to run high among inmates, according to staff. On April 24, two inmates at Corrigan were charged with attacking three correction officers during an escape attempt.

Kelly Schafer, a social worker at the Carl Robinson Correctional Institution in Enfield, where inmates are housed in dormitories, said there have been "numerous small disturbances and a couple of big ones" since the pandemic started in March.

Gabby Bottino, a licensed practical nurse at Osborn and a member of the SEIU District 1199 union that represents health care workers, said the facility, where several of the inmate COVID-19-related deaths have occurred, is short 20 nurses.

Lindsey Petralito, a medical records clerk at Hartford Correctional Center, said she's worked five days a week since the pandemic began, walking past correction officers and inmates to get to her office and sharing a bathroom with some who have tested positive for the virus. Though not all of her work can be done remotely, some of it could, she said, if only the department would make accommodations.

"I am concerned what will happen in the fall and winter when COVID-19 is expected to be much worse," she said. "If we are not set up to telework now, how can we expect to be prepared and plan accordingly for the future?"

The union members said personal protective equipment continues to be scarce within the DOC, and leaders of the three AFSME local unions used their own funds to purchase 10,000 N95 masks. With no end to the pandemic in sight, and a possible second wave in the fall, the union members said Wednesday that they don't know where the next 10,000 masks will come from. 

Karen Martucci, DOC director of external affairs, said in a written statement that the department is collaborating with the unions at an unprecedented level. "Early obstacles were far beyond anyone within the agency's control, such as the national shortages of critical personal protective equipment (PPE)," the statement said. "Once adequate inventory was restored, weekly mask distributions were put in motion."

The N95 masks have been issued to employees at facilities with large numbers of positive COVID-19 cases, and offenders have been issued more than one cloth mask that they are required to wear whenever outside their cells, according to the statement.

The agency saw more retirements than anticipated in March and April but is "keeping our foot on the gas" with regard to recruitment efforts, Martucci said. DOC employs 71 additional health services staff members than it did just one year ago, with 26 health care employees hired since March 1.

"I hear, understand and share the unions' frustrations, and I am doing everything within my power to address them," DOC Commissioner Rollin Cook said. "However, we are operating during an unprecedented crisis, and collaboration is vital. At a time like this, unity is more important than ever, now is not a time for divisive words and actions. We are stronger together. To that end, I am grateful for everyone's selfless efforts across our organization and I vow my commitment to work with the unions to reach mutually agreeable goal."


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