Connecticut Prisoners With COVID-19 Sent To Facility Critics Call ‘Instrument Of Torture’

May 1, 2020

Roger Johnson is an inmate at Cybulski Correctional Institution in Somers, Connecticut. He ran a fever on March 30 and took a COVID-19 test. According to Johnson, even before his test came back, he said guards sent him to pack up his cell and clean it with bleach. Then he was moved to the state’s COVID-19 ward at Northern Correctional Institution. 

Johnson’s testimony appeared in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU last week:

“I heard coughing. Some guys were taken out on stretchers and wheelchairs. It was a really sad situation. Staff were wearing hazmat suits…People started kicking their doors trying to get a phone call. After three days, they finally let us have one call. I called my mom. That was the only time I got out of my cell when I was at Northern.”

The ACLU of Connecticut is suing the state in federal court over, among other things, its handling of inmates who are sent to Northern Correctional Institution.

“Northern terrifies me,” says Elana Bildner, the ACLU attorney who spoke to Johnson for his affidavit. “When I walk into that place I feel like I’m walking into hell…It is a concrete bunker where people are locked into closets, essentially, with a sliver of light in the back.”

Bildner says it’s unconscionable to put anyone with an illness in the facility.

“Northern is the definition of punishment. It was built to punish, and it’s very good at punishing.”

Northern was already under scrutiny before the COVID-19 pandemic. A UN human rights expert last year pointed out that practices used at Northern, like solitary confinement and shackling, could amount to torture. The expert was reacting to a letter from a Yale Law School group led by Hope Metcalf, clinical lecturer in law and executive director of the Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights. 

Metcalf is co-counsel on a separate lawsuit the ACLU brought in state court. It’s since been dismissed. She says she worries the prison’s reputation could lead inmates with COVID-19 to hide their symptoms.

“If someone knows that if they report being symptomatic,” she says, “that they are going to be sent to a place that the department itself says houses, ‘the worst of the worst’…’then why are they going to report?”

Christopher Russell – another inmate – said in an affidavit he was kept in a cell by himself for almost 24 hours out of every day.“

The cells are … freezing cold,” he wrote. “I have asthma and the cold air makes it hard to breathe.”

He also said he showed symptoms, but was only tested for the virus after he got to Northern.

“They have not yet told me the results,” he wrote. “When I asked the medical staff, they did not respond. They pretty much just looked at me and walked away.”

The Department of Correction has said everyone admitted to Northern’s COVID-19 units has tested positive for the virus. We reached out to the department for a response to the inmates’ statements. It says it’s unable to comment further, citing pending litigation.

Northern currently houses about 130 inmates with COVID-19. But Yale’s Hope Metcalf doesn’t think anyone should be there. She’d like to see it closed.

“If you have an instrument of torture, if the system has that, the system will use it,” she says. “The best way to protect us is simply to dismantle this instrument of torture. It should have never existed, and it certainly should not be existing now.”

In a press release, the Connecticut Department of Correction says its practices are in line with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Protection. The CDC recommends cells with solid walls and doors that close fully.

It also says Northern’s ventilation system is similar to those used by hospitals and doesn’t recirculate air.

Attorney Elana Bildner says the ACLU wants the state to provide better access to cleaning supplies, protective equipment and social distancing. It also wants the state to release vulnerable prisoners, like those with pre-existing conditions.

“DOC could be taking steps to prevent infection in the first place, and to deal appropriately with getting people out of facilities who should not be incarcerated right now,” she says.

A state judge dismissed one of the ACLU’s lawsuits this week, saying the group didn’t show the state acted with deliberate indifference toward the risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The other ACLU lawsuit is still in federal court.

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