An advocacy group made up of loved ones of incarcerated individuals is alleging conditions at Osborn Correctional Institution where 146 inmates tested positive for COVID-19 are deteriorating quickly.
“I’m a nurse in New York state,” said Jennifer Rissinger, whose husband Carlos Ayala is incarcerated at Osborn in Somers. “I’m a COVID nurse, this is not OK, you need to be able to shower to stay clean.”
Rissinger is now sleeping in a tent in her garage while a friend takes care of the couple’s son so that she doesn’t spread the disease to her child. She is getting reports from her husband, other members of the Connecticut Prisoner Advocate Network and even state Department of Correction staff that the agency is having problems dealing with limiting the spread of COVID-19, she said.
The network was formed about a year ago by several family members of incarcerated individuals as a way of addressing issues with the DOC and providing each other support. But they fear their calls for help are being ignored during the coronavirus pandemic that has killed 3,449 state residents, including six inmates, since March 1.
Rissinger says a staff member told her that medical personnel are pushing the same cart used in areas for inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 to areas where there are no positive cases without wiping down or disinfecting the equipment, she said.
Osborn has been in lockdown since Thursday, when DOC officials discovered that 105 asymptomatic inmates tested positive for COVID-19 as the state is working to test all incarcerated individuals. The lockdown means inmates can’t get their commissary goods which include hygiene products, Rissginer said, and those in quarantine are being offered showers outdoors with cold water only.
They are given one bar of soap to clean themselves, wash their hands and wash their sink and toilet after each use if they have a cellmate, she said.
“The inmates have been told to stop cleaning, that the correction officers will do it, but the correction officers are saying that’s not their job,” Rissinger said. “There have been no showers and no cleaning for five days.”
Indoor showers for those who are in quarantine have been prohibited to stop the spread of the virus, but inmates can shower outside or wash in their cells if they choose, DOC Director of External Affairs Karen Martucci said.
Indoor showers are available for those who have not tested positive for the virus, she said.
“As the COVID-19 crisis continues to provide the Department of Correction with a frequently evolving set of circumstances, we will continue to adapt to the situation and do whatever is necessary to keep the offender population and our staff safe,” Martucci said.
In all, 617 of the 1,060 inmates at Osborn agreed to be tested last week, DOC officials said. During a Monday news conference, Gov. Ned Lamont and his chief of staff, Paul Mounds, lauded the fact that only 25 percent of the prison had tested positive.
But state Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has repeatedly expressed concern over how the DOC is handing the pandemic.
“When you look at the numbers, they either don’t have the capacity to enact their plan of how to deal with this, or their plan doesn’t work,” he said.
Although the DOC has released more than 1,600 people since March 1, the agency hasn’t utilized the extra space to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, Winfield said. “What about people who have comorbidities?” he said.
The state has relied on statutes when claiming that certain people can’t be released, Winfield said. But during the pandemic, Lamont can require more releases of medically fragile people by executive order, he said.
“Why are we saying we can’t do anything?” Winfield said. “We’re not bound by the statutes. He could come up with an executive order tomorrow that lays out the parameters of how people with comorbidities can be released.” As of 2 p.m. Friday May 15, 598 inmates had tested positive for the virus and six have died. The DOC said 444 inmates have recovered and been returned to their original facility.
Before 146 inmates at Osborn tested positive last week, the prison already had the highest number of positive tests.
“Although there is no arguing the need for mass testing of as many individuals as possible, receiving results that instantly inform you that approximately 25 percent of the population of a correctional facility have tested positive presents an extremely difficult operational problem,” Martucci said.
As a result, those inmates who tested positive but are not ill are being moved into locations for quarantine while others who declined to take the test are also being quarantined, Martucci said. About one-third of inmates at Osborn, which houses 1,060 inmates, did not agree to be tested.
“This all must be accomplished as quickly and as safely as possible,” Martucci said. “Given the difficulty of the task, as well as the fact that movement of this sort and to this extent has rarely been attempted, correctional staff were able to adapt to the circumstances and complete the necessary moves. Fortunately, all those that did test positive are asymptomatic. In addition, none of the other offenders in the facility have presented with any coronavirus-like symptoms.”
Union officials representing correction officers had not heard about the cleaning issues as of Monday, but said that the state Department of Public Health was advising the DOC on how to separate inmates to prevent further infections.
The advocacy group is also concerned about the new “phone sleeves” which are supposed to protect inmates from spreading the virus when they call home. But the group pointed out that the sleeves aren’t being replaced after each use, which negates their purpose.
The sleeves were an innovative solution created by the DOC’s Correctional Industries to protect inmates as they call home, Martucci said.
“At this point only a prototype has been produced,” Martucci said. “When mass production of the phone sleeves occurs, the intent will be for the sleeves to be a one-time use, disposable item, slipped over the phone receiver by the user, then, once the call is completed removed and discarded.”