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Connecticut prisons announce coronavirus test results, brace for second wave

Connecticut prisons, hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, are conducting mass testing of staff and inmates and gearing up for a possible second wave of the disease later this year.

The state Department of Correction recently settled a class-action lawsuit brought by the ACLU Foundation of Connecticut on behalf of men and women incarcerated as of March 1 through the remainder of the year. DOC has agreed to testing of all inmates, quarantining newly admitted prisoners for 14 days, providing two cloth face masks per inmate, two bars of soap weekly, showers every other day and antiseptics for cleaning twice a week and to fast-track prisoners aged 65 or older for release, if eligible.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the DOC has reported that 1,210 inmates have tested positive for the virus and seven have died.

The DOC started mass testing of inmates May 13 and announced Monday that as of June 25, it had completed its first round of testing on all but 440 inmates who declined to be tested. Of the 9,504 prisoners tested for the virus across 14 facilities, 832, or 9%, were positive. The results did not include 510 inmates who had contracted the virus prior to the mass testing project.  

All but two of the inmates who tested positive as part of the mass testing were asymptomatic, according to Karen Martucci, director of external affairs. The remainder of inmates who tested positive stayed asymptomatic throughout a 14-day isolation and monitoring period. Many of the inmates have been surprised by their positive test results, and Martucci said the agency would again offer testing to those who previously had opted out.

"One thing we learned early was that education is important," she said. "You have to take the time to explain how it's important to be tested, how people are carrying the virus and spreading it unknowingly."

Two state prisons have had no inmates test positive: the Janet S. York Correctional Institution for women in Niantic and Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire.

The Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Montville has had 246 inmates test positive since the beginning of the pandemic. All 960 inmates at the facility took part in the mass testing, and 152, or 16%, tested positive.

The public has been prohibited from visiting inmates since March, so the primary source for introducing the virus into the prisons is believed to be the approximately 6,000 prison staff members who work for the DOC. Since March, 380 employees have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and all but three have since recovered and returned to work, according to the DOC.

During the most recent round of testing, 593 correctional employees have been tested, with all but one of the results coming back negative.  No staff member has tested positive in over a month.

Testing of staff who have direct contact with inmates is now mandated by agreement between the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, or SEBAC, and the state Office of Labor Relations.

According to the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers criminal justice, 48,674 cases of COVID-19 and 585 deaths have been reported among the approximately 2.1 million people incarcerated in state, federal and private prisons in the United States.

In Connecticut, the state DOC has pared its population by more than 2,400 prisoners to 9,963, focusing on the discretionary release of eligible offenders. Within the next few days, the DOC said it expects the population to drop below half of its all-time high of 19,894, which was reached on Feb. 1, 2008.

Commissioner Rollin Cook resigned earlier this month, saying he needed to return to his family, who had never been able to relocate from Utah due to the pandemic. 

Angel Quiros, a deputy DOC commissioner, has been elevated to interim commissioner.

"Having spent more than 30 years with the Department of Correction, I was here when the population ballooned and now I am seeing it shrink like never before.  In short, I have learned to expect the unexpected," Quiros said in a news release.  "As we continue to manage and prepare for future obstacles related to the (COVID-19) pandemic, one thing that I am certain of is the ability of the agency's amazing staff to adapt to, and overcome any future challenges."

The agency is assessing how it will conduct the next round of inmate testing, according to Martucci, who said visits are still on hold.

"The goal is to get down to zero positive cases," she said by phone Tuesday. "We're not there right now, but we are simultaneously having  a group work on what visits will look like."

The DOC is exploring the possibility of enabling inmates to participate in virtual visits, with the understanding that resuming in-person visits is important, Martucci said. During the pandemic, the DOC has allowed inmates to make two free phone calls a week and provided stamped envelopes for written communications.

k.florin@theday.com

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