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  • The Narrative Project

Is Indifference Making Petri Dishes of CT Prisons?

By Mercy A. Quaye

June 1, 2020

A view of a part of the Bridgeport Correctional Center located on North Avenue in Bridgeport in 2015.
Photo courtesy of CTInsider

Credit where credit is due: Gov. Ned Lamont has done a relatively great job at adhering to guidelines to ensure residents are mostly protected during this time.

But this administration’s blind spots and inability to adopt equitable policies may be killing people — particularly Connecticut’s incarcerated population.

Maybe it’s easy to ignore the fact that members of Connecticut’s incarcerated population are sitting ducks because you don’t know anyone in prison. Maybe you’re finding it difficult to relate to the injustice of waiting to die behind bars while you serve time for a crime that did not warrant death.

While it shouldn’t require a personal connection to know these injustices should be corrected, I understand the inability to relate. Even I, in trying to consider whether I knew any incarcerated people, at first thought I didn’t — not after my brother’s release several years ago. But then I realized I do, and to some degree, I may have helped put him there.

In 2013, while reporting on city operations in Winsted, I covered the story of Henry Centrella — the longtime finance director who was convicted for embezzling upward of $2 million.

Centrella, who eventually pleaded guilty, was sentenced to 11 years in 2014 and filed for parole in 2018. That application was denied and at the time he was housed in MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield. My brother was there for a while; I remember because I’ll never forget the sound of the call service pronouncing the name of the facility, which last week reported four positive cases of COVID-19.

This week I thought about the level of care and concern each of us should have for folks we don’t know or can’t relate to. But for those having a hard time internalizing that, I’m left to offer that the history of mass incarceration of black and brown communities, the practices that result in the school-to-prison pipeline and other injustices that force people into the justice system mean that these facilities are filled with people who (1) never had an equal opportunity at success; (2) weren’t sentenced to death for their crimes and should not incur death because of our inaction; and (3) are deserving of the right to protect themselves, even while serving time for their actions.

So far, 853 inmates have contracted the virus in state facilities, seven have died, and countless others have been identified as asymptomatic — 105 in just one facility, according to the CT Mirror.

In New Haven, Barbara Fair’s organizing work is well documented and acknowledged. She’s got a number of old school bird-dogging practices that have gotten a variety of results over the years. But if you can count on anyone to speak truth to power, even if it’s from behind the cover of a mask, it’s Barbara Fair.

That approach might be just what Connecticut’s incarcerated population needs.

During a press conference held on the New Haven Green last week, Lamont was unable to get through two words without being challenged with questions like, “Are you indifferent to the lives of incarcerated people, and that’s why you are allowing them to die?” in true Fair fashion.

So, is it indifference? Is the inaction to protect the human lives at risk in our state’s prisons the result of a complete lack of concern? While our state’s leaders maintain they’re doing everything they can, I’m not so sure, and advocates across the state aren’t, either.

“The inaction we’re seeing suggests that the population of incarcerated people is disposable,” said Abby Anderson, executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy organization working to end the criminalization and incarceration of youth, and also a partner of The Narrative Project. “They’re being treating as though they are not worth the time, resources or political power to save or help. We justify it because ‘good people’ don’t go to prison. Yet we know our system incarcerates more than anywhere else in the world, and we know race is a big determinant in who gets swept into that mass incarceration. Systems were formed to continue an underclass when enslavement ended. So that’s what we have.”

Adopting ethical and equitable policies during this crisis would force the Lamont administration to identify our state’s most vulnerable populations and pour resources into protecting those classes. But we haven’t done that. Instead, the state issued orders to keep inmates in solitary confinement, revoke showering privileges and refuse access to some of the most basic forms of hygiene.

According to a class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Connecticut, the conditions of confinement at DOC facilities are shockingly insufficient to protect plaintiffs from infection, serious complications or death from COVID-19. And that’s not really hard to believe, is it? You can imagine that densely packed jails and prisons are a breeding ground for infection. You can estimate, with your own wit, that without the ability to adequately practice social distancing and avoid the spread of COVID, droves of people are likely to contract it.

“This pandemic has clarified the fact that we’ve fortified a caste system in America,” Anderson said. “Not only have we separated people into the haves and have-nots, but also the should-haves and should-have-nots.”

When you decide, even subconsciously, that people shouldn’t have access to quality care or the autonomy to protect themselves, the conditions for mass causalities of indifference are created. That’s what we’re seeing unfold in Connecticut’s prisons, and we should all care regardless of how close to home it hits.

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