On September 29, 2020, two prison reform advocacy groups held a press conference to draw attention to the legislature’s failure to address pandemic-related issues or to implement any changes that would impact mass incarceration in the state.
Members of the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice read testimony from prisoners who had been unable to take proper precautionary measures to mitigate the spread of the virus, obtain adequate medical care, and to stay in touch with their families (due to high phone rates).
Governor Ned Lamont had twice canceled meetings with the group, and the Department of Corrections refused to come up with a transparent and comprehensive plan to protect the lives of vulnerable prisoners held in the state prisons and jails. “If you took the time to meet with these directly impacted CT residents, you would better understand how to create effective public policies that center the most vulnerable and at-risk individuals of our state,” said the group in an open letter.
Senator Gary Winfield noted that the infection rate in state prisons was only 3 percent of the general prison population, but attributed this to luck. “We shouldn’t be happy that by chance our rates were low,” he was quoted as saying. “That’s not because of any action that we took.” (Indeed, by January 2021, the infection rate had climbed to more than 5 percent. Fourteen prisoners had died.)
As part of a larger police reform bill passed in the summer 2020 session, guards have an affirmative duty to intervene when their peers use illegal or excessive force. Also, any time an inmate dies in custody, the inspector general is to investigate to determine whether the death was the result of criminal action. But these measures only address issues after the fact and won’t address more systemic abuses, like overuse of solitary confinement.
Katal and the other group, Stop Solitary CT, are pushing for a more “aggressive plan for emergency release” to address the pandemic and mass incarceration. The groups noted the first Connecticut prisoner to die of COVID-19 had been approved for discretionary release but was unable to get out because he did not have an appropriate home sponsor.
Senator Winfield has pledged to put forth a more comprehensive bill, which would address compassionate release and other pandemic-related issues. “There needs to be a coming together to actually talk about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and whether or not it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
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