Crowded rooms, communal showers, and shared phones make social distancing virtually  impossible in the New Haven Correctional Center, a high security institution with over 825 inmates. “I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy—to be in New Haven Correctional right now with the COVID pandemic,” stressed former inmate Marcus Rivera during a virtual teach-in. “It was very dangerous and scary. Very, very scary.”

On November 9, the Connecticut Bail Fund hosted a virtual teach-in to educate the public on the realities of incarceration during a pandemic. The event, “Behind The Walls: A Virtual Teach-In,” provided first-hand accounts from former inmates and individuals with incarcerated family members. Volunteers also read aloud testimonies from the Bail Fund’s newly established hotline, which was specifically created to better understand the experiences of incarcerated people during the pandemic. 

“The hotline is really the way that we continue to stay in touch with folks who are incarcerated in the state and strategize direct actions in solidarity with their fight for freedom and justice,” explained Nika Zarazvand, the hotline coordinator. Incarcerated individuals and their families can call the hotline to report their experiences, share their concerns, or seek support. For example, the Bail Fund has helped facilitate commissary payments, provide bail support, and contact the Connecticut’s Public Defender’s office for people who have trouble reaching their counsel. More than 200 people in the New Haven Correctional Center have contacted the hotline, and the Bail Fund has published many of these testimonies anonymously on their website. The organizers hope that these testimonies will raise awareness about the current conditions in facilities, as many of the reports directly contradict the Department of Corrections’ (DOC) narrative of their response to the pandemic.

As the pandemic swept across the nation, prisons became breeding grounds for surges of COVID-19 cases. Statistics from the Equal Justice Initiative reveal that five of the largest outbreaks in the country are linked to correctional facilities, and the largest known hotspot is located at the San Quentin State Prison in California, where more than 2,600 incarcerated individuals and employees were infected. 

In response to the urgent public health crisis occurring behind bars, many states expedited early releases for individuals who were at an increased risk of developing severe symptoms from COVID-19. While conditions inside prisons are typically concealed from public view, COVID-19 shined a light on the realities that many individuals experience while incarcerated. Local organizations such as the Connecticut branch of the ACLU and the Bail Fund have demonstrated that in addition to fighting the pandemic, we must concurrently address another pressing crisis: the incarceration epidemic.

The DOC’s initial measures to address the pandemic struggled to limit the spread of the virus, prompting criticism and pushback from local organizations who argued that the DOC’s approach was not nearly aggressive enough. Karen Martucci, the Director of External Affairs for the Connecticut DOC, commented in an interview with The Politic that the Department was “running pretty fast trying to catch up and keep up to date with CDC guidelines, which were changing quite frequently.” She particularly emphasized that maintaining social distancing inside prisons was incredibly challenging.

As of November 11, the DOC reported that 1,749 inmates had tested positive and eight of those individuals had passed away. In the beginning, Martucci described how uncertainty over the best prevention mechanisms created a lot of “hysteria during that first phase.” Once it was acknowledged that the virus spreads through the air, the DOC refused to allow inmates to shower. They also prevented inmates from using the telephones to call home, as they were very concerned about people coming into contact with shared resources. However, the lack of contact between incarcerated individuals and their loved ones only exacerbated the fear and uncertainty that families were experiencing. 

During the Bail Fund’s teach-in, many individuals with incarcerated loved ones shared their pain of not being in contact with their family members. Ms. Faye* described how her 62 year-old brother was hospitalized due to contracting COVID-19 and how he had “suffered alone.” For three weeks, her brother was in and out of the hospital, and his family had no idea. By the time that Faye had heard from her brother, he was towards the end of his recovery. Faye brought her concerns directly to Martucci but was informed that the DOC was not responsible for contacting the families. She recalled pressing Martucci on this policy, asking, “We are faced with a virus that has shut the world down. We have loved ones inside, and we are not allowed to know what is going on? I’m concerned about what would have happened if he had passed away. That’s my concern.”

Troubling reports that detailed the experiences of inmates prompted the ACLU to file a state and federal lawsuit against the Department of Corrections on April 3 to advocate for safer conditions inside prison facilities. David McGuire, the Executive Director of the ACLU of Connecticut, received reports that people were not being given the proper resources to keep clean or maintain social distancing. He believed that “the issue with the Department of Corrections was that they were not moving fast enough or aggressive enough to address this issue before the pandemic hit the facilities.” “We were very concerned about the reports we heard from people in terms of mismanagement of the situation,” McGuire continued.

As an example, the Connecticut Bail Fund’s hotline received a call on April 3 from an inmate who described living in horribly unsafe conditions. He reported that people who had tested positive were taken to solitary confinement, and were not allowed to call their families, have recreation time, or leave their cells to eat. Air vents blew dirt into his room, triggering his asthma and forcing him to sleep with a t-shirt around his neck in order to breathe. He also stated that although he was supposed to receive adequate cleaning supplies, he was only given half a bar of soap every two weeks. 

McGuire emphasized that the ACLU’s lawsuit required prisons to provide the most fundamental living conditions, essentially establishing “a human rights floor.” The lawsuit advocated for basic sanitation and health measures, including making sure that there were available cleaning supplies, masks, PPE, and regular testing. Additionally, the ACLU urged the DOC to take further action by releasing more people from custody, arguing that from a public health standpoint, people should not remain in prisons unnecessarily. Ultimately, McGuire stressed that the lawsuit reflected an urgent request for “the system to treat people promptly and humanely.”

While Martucci acknowledged that the DOC’s strategy has evolved over time, she defended the DOC’s response, claiming that the lawsuit was settled in part because the DOC had already implemented many of the ACLU’s demands. However, she noted that some of the resulting changes included reversing the decision to prohibit shower and phone access, stepping up cleaning protocols, developing mass testing procedures, implementing a new policy to quarantine inmates upon intake, and establishing a monitoring panel to ensure a continued adherence to these policies. 

Martucci shared that she was proud of the DOC’s efforts to increase discretionary releases, prioritizing people who were over 50 years old or those who had underlying health issues. According to data provided by the DOC, there was a 72 percent increase in early releases in March as compared to February, and about 1,455 people were released overall between March and May 1, 2020. Moreover, Martucci emphasized that the steep decline in the prison population is reflective of a decade-long trend, as the number of people in Connecticut’s state prisons and jails has halved since 2008. 

While the decline in prison populations is certainly significant, representatives from local Connecticut organizations argue that this data should be situated within America’s prison industrial complex. McGuire and the ACLU believe that there is still plenty more work to be done. He commented, “We still believe that the population needs to come down significantly in order to make the facilities a safer place. We have concerns about mass incarceration separate from COVID-19, but there is a real heightened risk given the pandemic and the fact that we do not have a vaccine yet.” Particularly, the people at risk are communities who are overrepresented in the prison system. McGuire stressed that “Black and Latinx populations make up the lion’s share of our prison populations and they are the ones ultimately at the highest risk of being inside the facilities during an active pandemic.”

Alex Tsarkov, the executive director of the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, concurred with McGuire that more action should be taken to reduce the prison population. In his role as executive director, Tsarkov oversees the organization’s efforts to engage in the legislative process by conducting criminal justice research and drafting proposals. He noted that while significant, the amount of discretionary releases were few in number “compared to what advocates such as the ACLU have been calling for.” He also argued that the reduction in the prison population “should be celebrated, but should also be viewed in the context of this country, which incarcerates more people per capita than any other country in the world.” 

According to data from the Prison Policy Initiative, if the incarceration rates of each state were compared to all other nations, twenty three states would have the highest incarceration rates in the world. Even Connecticut, which some have applauded for having an incarceration rate that is below the national average, would have the fourth highest rate of incarceration in the world. These statistics demonstrate the order of magnitude of America’s prison industrial complex and show that while a decline in the population is significant, Connecticut’s incarceration rates are nowhere near as ‘progressive’ as some have argued. 

With increased media attention focusing on outbreaks of COVID-19 within prisons, both Tsarkov and McGuire hope that this coverage will also expose the harm that incarceration produces more broadly. In his work, Tsarkov believes that he has witnessed a greater focus on equity issues and is advocating for more progressive legislation that supports prisoner’s rights, such as extending voting rights to felons. He commented, “We know exactly who is disenfranchised by the current systems. We know that people in prisons are disproportionately people of color, poor people, people with mental health issues and people with substance abuse issues. An issue like voter eligibility is a type of proposal that I think could get a lot more traction in the legislature.” 

McGuire also believes that the public has become more conscious of the reality of the criminal justice system. He said, “I think there has been, over the last few years, rising awareness among people in Connecticut that the criminal legal system is not fair and that mass incarceration doesn’t make us safer.” He hopes that people will consider the impact that incarceration has on families as well, especially during a time of crisis when inmates were prohibited from contacting their loved ones. McGuire concluded that “one of the pieces of this tragic situation that has really been overlooked is the wide impact that this has had on communities.” 

The recent teach-in organized by the Connecticut Bail Fund and their ongoing hotline demonstrates that there is still so much at stake. Over 100 people continue to call the hotline every day, and one in every five callers reports experiencing an illness or a preexisting condition that would increase their chances of death from COVID-19. As Zarazvand stated, “these individuals expressed to us that they felt that with preexisting conditions, COVID-19 would be a death sentence for them before they heard back from their public defenders, private attorneys, or the courts.” While the DOC’s response has evolved over time, some argue that it should not take an active pandemic for people to take a closer look at the injustices within the prison system, reimagine bail systems, improve sanitation conditions, expedite discretionary releases, and reduce the amount of people waiting for trial.

Moreover, since the hotline was created in March, it has documented reports of routine violence including medical neglect, active abuse, and a clear evasion of public health guidelines. While the testimonies paint a harrowing picture of incarceration, these stories are rarely told. The Bail Fund’s decision to amplify these testimonies, however, forces the public to confront the pernicious effects of incarceration on people’s lives and ensures that the carceral state is not simply conceptualized in the abstract. Eae Benioff, a volunteer at the Bail Fund, hopes that the testimony from the hotline will prompt people to consider the system of incarceration more critically. “If this is the violence that prisons produce,” she asked, “do we really want to live in a world with them?” 

*full name hidden for anonymity