The News-Times

Report: FCI Danbury still sees cases, delayed COVID testing

- By Currie Engel

DANBURY — Conditions at the federal prison in the city appear to have improved little, despite legislator­s’ demands last week for an investigat­ion into allegation­s that the facility failed to follow COVID-19 isolation guidelines, according to allegation­s by staff and a lawyer involved in a lawsuit against the prison.

Infections are still high, with around 80 men — some allegedly at higher risk — remaining relocated in the Federal Correction­al Institutio­n Danbury’s auditorium, and staff still not being provided appropriat­e personal protective equipment, according to Sarah Russell, director of the Legal Clinic at Quinnipiac University School of Law and a Quinnipiac law professor.

In a 1,500-word emailed statement to the News-Times sent in response to the allegation­s, the Bureau of Prisons said, in part, that the agency follows CDC guidance, “the same as community doctors and hospitals, with regard to quarantine and medical isolation procedures, along with providing appropriat­e treatment.”

The agency also said it is “using critical testing tools to help mitigate the spread of the virus and continues to provide testing for COVID-19 symptomati­c inmates, as well as mass testing or serial testing when indicated.”

The BOP reports the number of active COVID cases has declined to 64 on Thursday, compared to 89 last week, but the attorney who has been communicat­ing with the incarcerat­ed individual­s questions the validity of those numbers.

The facility is a low security federal correction­al institutio­n with a low security satellite prison and a minimum security satellite camp.

U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, both D-Conn.,

In a 1,500-word emailed statement to the News-Times sent in response to the allegation­s, the Bureau of Prisons said, in part, that the agency follows CDC guidance, “the same as community doctors and hospitals, with regard to quarantine and medical isolation procedures, along with providing appropriat­e treatment.”

and U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, DConn., sent a letter Jan. 4 to the U.S. attorney general, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and acting warden at FCI Danbury regarding “highly disturbing” reports that half of the women housed in a satellite camp had tested positive for COVID-19 and isolation guidelines weren’t followed.

At the time, the Bureau of Prisons declined to confirm nor deny the specific allegation­s, and to date, the agency has not sent a response to the letter, according to Blumenthal’s office.

Incarcerat­ed individual­s who test positive for COVID or have symptoms are “medically isolated and provided medical care until they are considered recovered by medical staff ” as determined by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, the BOP said.

“All institutio­ns, to include FCI Danbury, have areas identified for quarantine and medical isolation,” the bureau said. “Inmates are treated at the institutio­n unless medical staff determine they require hospitaliz­ation.”

On Wednesday, a week after the letter was sent, facility administra­tors declared an emergency, activating their crisis team, according to Shaun Boylan, executive vice president with AFGE Local 1661 and employee at FCI Danbury.

There have also been more positive COVID-19 cases reported at the women’s facility since last week, according to Russell.

Men in five units and the auditorium told her that unit-wide testing has not occurred since Jan. 5 or 6, she said.

There are also accusation­s of delays between reports of symptoms and testing, and delays in the isolation of people who have symptoms. Some people reported to Russell that they had not been tested after bunk mates tested positive.

“Without regular unit-wide testing it is difficult to determine the scope of the outbreak and to respond to it appropriat­ely,” Russell said in an email to Hearst Connecticu­t.

The BOP uses PCR testing for the “bulk” of its testing, but FCI Danbury also uses rapid tests that provide results in to 10 to 15 minutes, the bureau said.

Initial reports last week reported that 80 men were being held in an auditorium after their units were turned into isolation units. This is still the case, Russell said.

Many of the men allegedly came from Unit M, which is a unit that houses people with special vulnerabil­ities, like the elderly, those with disabiliti­es, or veterans with PTSD, Russell said. While reports suggest there are sufficient cots for everyone in the auditorium now, Russell reported that conditions are “very crowded” with cots only two feet away from each other.

The auditorium allegedly has no smoke detectors or fire alarm pull stations. Communicat­ion for incarcerat­ed people housed there is limited.

Staff concerns

Inside, staff still aren’t being given appropriat­e personal protective equipment and are being asked to re-use their PPE, according to Boylan.

Russell also reported this shortage and alleged that staff sometimes enter units without masks on.

“Since the onset of the pandemic, the BOP, including FCI Danbury, has maintained an ample supply of PPE and is utilizing them in accordance with CDC guidance,” the BOP said.

The staff shortage is still causing issues, as well. Boylan reported that six staff members are being moved from various positions — from education programmin­g, to drug assistance, to recreation specialtie­s — to fill in as correction­al officers due to staff shortages. This duty change comes with different hours and responsibi­lities. Staff not employed as correction­al officers are asked to take on a role and draw on a two to three-week training that for many, occurred years ago, he said.

“All staff assigned to correction­al facilities are law enforcemen­t officers and are considered correction­al workers first, regardless of their occupation,” the BOP said. “All staff receive the same amount of training as correction­al workers and are informed at the time of hiring they are expected to perform law enforcemen­t functions during routine and non-routine situations.”

The agency confirmed that some staff members have taken on temporary security roles at some correction­al institutio­ns to fulfill the agency’s “commitment to public safety.”

Boylan previously reported to Hearst Connecticu­t that staffing shortages also leave workers showing up to work sick, bringing COVID into the facility with them.

The union protested in December,

calling on Congress to take measures to address the staffing problems.

COVID cases

Since the outbreak’s initial peak last week, the Bureau of Prisons COVID-19 dashboard has shown a gradual decline in cases at the facility. The facility now ranks 33rd in infections among federal prisons nationwide, compared to fifth last week.

On Thursday, the dashboard showed FCI Danbury had 64 active cases among its population, with 11 staff positive cases.

But Russell said she does not know what criteria the agency is using to remove someone from the count, and whether it is based on a five-day point from initially testing positive or another measure.

While she does not have a precise count, one woman told her that they estimated 12 people tested positive in the women’s facility during this latest outbreak.

“People incarcerat­ed at FCI Danbury are incredibly scared,” said Kylee Verrill, law student intern with the Legal Clinic at Quinnipiac University School of Law. “To have people subject to such dangerous conditions two years into the pandemic represents a massive institutio­nal failure.”

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