Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
In April, former Commissioner of Department of Correction (DOC) Rollin Cook issued a department-wide memorandum requiring staff “to wear protective face-masks while on duty whenever social distancing is not possible.”
Corrections officers in Connecticut aren’t obeying this instruction. They’re not wearing masks, at least not properly and definitely not consistently. That’s what’s caused the precipitous rise in the number of infections and deaths of incarcerated people. As of February 5, 3,816 inmates had tested positive and 19 of them have died from COVID-19 complications; six passed away inside of a month. But none had died between May 26 and November 18, and the positivity rate during that time was around 1%. This spread is a more recent phenomenon.
There are only three ways the virus can reliably enter a correctional facility: visits, new admissions and/or staff. The realities of prison life during COVID-19 take the first two options out of contention. It’s most likely that the staff who’s spreading the disease.
Visits can’t be the cause of the spread because in-person visits that allow contact have been suspended since March; the resumption of visits in October limited them to non-contact, which means the inmate and the visitor don’t even breathe the same air.
New admissions aren’t causing the spread, either. Incoming inmates are kept in quarantine for two weeks, more than enough time to assure that they’re not infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It’s the lack of masks on the staff that’s causing the spread. That’s where the evidence points.
While it’s been hard to connect with inmates because of a lockdown imposed to slow the virus’s spread, a few prisoners have reported the non-use of masks to family and friends.
A relative of a model inmate at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution reports that he’s witnessed prisoners asking officers to fix their masks or put them on, only to be told to mind their own business. According to this relative, repercussions are sure to follow — like mail tampering — if anyone complains about their not wearing masks.
Another woman took pictures of guards when she retrieved her cell phone from the lockers outside the visiting room at the same prison, MacDougall-Walker CI. One officer wasn’t wearing a mask at all and another had it slung around his chin.
A female inmate at York Correctional Institution, the state’s only women’s prison, that went without a single infection until September 2020, says guards aren’t wearing masks and she witnessed one maskless guard ask where he could get a COVID test.
It’s not just the staff’s refusal to wear masks. Another man who spent a month at Bridgeport Correctional Center said that inmates who make their own masks are often punished for it. While a shirt or a sheet fashioned into a mask can, in theory, be considered contraband, the wisdom of punishing an attempt to protect one’s own health, and others’, is questionable.
But the most damning evidence that staff isn’t wearing masks is an official report by the Monitoring Panel — a group of five people (two chosen by the ACLU, two chosen by the DOC and a fifth chosen by the original four — established through the settlement with the state in the suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Connecticut in April 2020, captioned McPherson v. Lamont, to protect incarcerated people from the novel coronavirus. When provided the opportunity to prove their obedience to the rules, correctional staff blew it. The Monitoring Panel conducted two site visits where they reported that “most” of the officers and inmates observed were wearing masks when they toured.