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Connecticut correction officers say coronavirus creating dangerous conditions

Connecticut correction officers are calling a code orange as the coronavirus continues to permeate the walls of the state's 14 prison facilities.

That means they're in trouble.

During a conference call Tuesday, The Day spoke with leaders of Local 1565 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 2,000 front-line correctional employees at Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Institution in Montville, The Janet S. York Correctional Institution for women in Niantic, and prisons in Newtown, Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven. 

The union leaders said that as the pandemic sets in, inmates are getting testy, personal protective equipment is in short supply and officers are being forced to work 16-hour shifts because so many of their co-workers are sick, quarantined at home or unable to get tested for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

"We're stressed to the max," said Steven Wales, union steward for correction officers at Corrigan. "While other people are being told to stay at home, we're being told to stay at the prison."

They're doing the job they trained for, but there's always the nagging fear they will bring home the virus to their family members. Some are living in hotel rooms at their own expense or in campers while others are at home trying to isolate themselves from vulnerable family members.

On Tuesday, the Department of Correction notified staff that it would be moving inmates with the virus and those suspected of having it to the Northern Correctional Institution in Somers.

As of Monday, the DOC reported that 32 staff members and 21 inmates had tested positive for the virus, but the numbers didn't include pending test results or staff members who are quarantined at home and unable to be tested. Contractors are taking staff members' temperature as they arrive at a facility, but the officers say the thermometers are inaccurate, sometimes showing a temperature as low as 90 degrees.

At Corrigan, the DOC reported Monday seven staff members and four inmates had tested positive. Wales said that as of Tuesday, 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.

At the Janet S. York Correctional Institution in Niantic, the state's only prison for women, one staff member had a confirmed COVID-19 case as of Tuesday. The DOC reported that three York inmates had been tested, and as of Tuesday, one had a negative result.

DOC administrators face criticism from both employees and families of inmates as they grapple with the pandemic. On Monday, family members who want their loved ones released parked their cars in front of the governor's mansion in Hartford to stage a protest while socially distancing.

DOC Commissioner Rollin Cook said during a Monday news conference with Gov. Ned Lamont that the department has released 700 low-risk prisoners since March 1 but is not letting anybody out without a solid housing and supervision plan. He said he has been requesting personal protective equipment, or PPE, at every meeting of the state command staff.

Officers say they have been issued one cloth mask made by inmates in the prison industries program, and are having a hard time washing it between working long shifts. Meanwhile, they are sometimes working side by side with medical staff in full protective gear, Wales said. Mike Tuthill, president of Local 1565, said the state's three AFSCME locals have chipped in to purchase 10,000 N95 masks and are awaiting the delivery. They are also open to donations, he said.

"We're front line," Tuthill said. "We're locked inside with these guys. We're breathing the same air, whether we like it or not."

Inmates at Corrigan are locked down 23½ hours a day to prevent the spread of the virus, and tempers are flaring, Wales said. Over the weekend, an officer called "code orange" when a gang member let out of his cell for a shower and phone call got upset when told to end the phone call and refused to go back into his cell, Wales said.

A correction officer was injured after a weekend of tension at the Carl Robinson Correctional Institution, and more than 100 inmates have been transferred to the maximum security Northern Correctional Institution, according to DOC officials.

Brian Withington, the union steward at York, said the Niantic women's prison seems to have gotten out in front of the pandemic and confined the sick patients, as well as newly admitted prisoners and those who are taken to court appearances, to the inpatient medical ward at the prison. But it, too, lacks PPE.

Mike Vargo, Local 1565 vice president, said he got a call last week that state troopers in full protective gear, including gowns, dropped off an inmate last week, and "we didn't even have a mask to put on." The same thing has happened when inmates have to be taken to the hospital, he said.

k.florin@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the COVID-19test results at the Janet S. York Correctional Institution.

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