COVID & prisoners: ‘Hit the horns! Free them all!’ 

Damaris Colon & son
Damaris Colón and her son, who is incarcerated.

By JOSH BLANCHFIELD

“Hit the horns!” This has been the signal of resistance to rows and rows of cars in recent days outside of Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont’s mansion in the historic west end of Hartford. What has followed along Prospect Avenue outside the mansion has been a cacophony of resistance against the conditions of prisoners trapped during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Activists across Connecticut have quickly adapted to the pandemic by organizing a series of car-based demonstrations outside the mansion to bring the plight of prisoners directly to Governor Lamont’s door. Between April 6 and April 12, three of these car actions clogged the street outside the mansion demanding the release of prisoners.

“I know this is a hard decision but please give a chance to my son. He has learned his lesson. He has plans to go back to college and get his life together. If the governor gives my son a chance, we will be forever grateful. I don’t mind if my son is under house arrest, I just want him to be safe,” says Damaris Colon, the mother of a 19-year-old inmate.

With Lamont’s continual dodging of the coalition and families, a multipronged plan was released. The plan, developed by a coalition of prison reform groups and families of the incarcerated, calls for the rapid decarceration of Connecticut prisoners, including 2416 inmates with less than 1 year on their sentences, 1556 people in prison for technical violations, the 5314 up for parole, and 3089 who aren’t even sentenced. It also calls for the immediate halt to transfers to Northern Correctional, according to the statement released by the coalition, “The conditions of confinement at Northern C.I. are deeply inhumane and are intrinsically punitive.”

This coalition has joined forces to fight for the release of prisoners trapped by the pandemic. It includes the Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice, Stop Solitary CT, One Standard of Justice, CT Bail Fund, and Second Chance Educational Alliance. The coalition has also found solidarity in Unidad Latina en Acción CT, which is also fighting for the release of those detained during the pandemic.

“No Justice, No Peace! Compassion and Release!”

The demands are clear: Governor Lamont must immediately release incarcerated groups from Connecticut jails and prisons due to COVID-19. Unfortunately, Lamont has refused to take the action needed to keep inmates safe. In fact, the situation is worsening as ill prisoners are being transferred to the state’s only maximum-security prison, Northern Correctional Institution in Somers. According to the state, the maximum-security prison has the infrastructure recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to isolate inmates with the virus. Over 35 inmates have been transferred to Northern.

According to activists, though, transfers to Northern are also targeting prisoners resisting their treatment during the pandemic, including those engaging in hunger strikes and work stoppages. “People are being crucified for speaking up. They should have a right to not have to work or stay in a place where they know they are going to be infected,” Barbara Fair of Stop Solitary CT told protesters gathered outside the mansion on Easter Sunday.

It is clear to families of those incarcerated and the coalition that Connecticut is headed in the wrong direction in its treatment of the sick and the conditions that are putting all prisoners at risk.

“Some correctional officers are not using masks. They are all at risk, even the nurses. The doctors only pass by and look in cells. How can they tell if anyone is sick?” says Colon. She says her son calls her and tries to update her on the pandemic situation in prison. “I’m so scared because for my son, when he was younger, he was exposed to pneumonia as a child. He suffered all his life from ADHD, persistent depressive disorder and with this COVID-19. … Governor Lamont just is not caring about any incarcerated people.”

In response to the action outside his door, the governor told the constituents to “call me” but sent them to a phone line that didn’t work and went directly to 211. Groups then demanded a meeting with the governor, which was scheduled for last Thursday but was then cancelled by Lamont’s team and rescheduled for Monday, April 13—making families wait again. Lamont and his team then proceeded to cancel that meeting as well. Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases in Connecticut prisons and jails increases for both incarcerated people and correctional staff. Lamont’s delays mean people in jails and prisons remain in danger.

Late Monday night, news broke that Connecticut’s first incarcerated victim of COVID-19 had been identified. He had been approved in March for discretionary release into the community, but a home sponsor could not be found.

The coalition is clear about who can reduce the harm: Governor Lamont, “You have the power to fix this crisis with a stroke of a pen. Do so.”

For more information and a list of the coalition’s demands, see:

https://votesocialistaction.files.wordpress.com/2020/04/dce72-coviddecarceration_coalitionpolicypaper_4-13-2020.pdf

 

 

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