On April 27, inmates from the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, CT – where the real-life Piper Kerman whose memoir became the Netflix show Orange Is The New Black was incarcerated – filed a class-action federal lawsuit against the facility. The suit alleges that the Bureau of Prisons and FCI Danbury are aware of the dangers posed by COVID-19, but have failed to take actions that would protect people incarcerated in its prisons. The emergency measures proposed in the lawsuit would protect more than 1,000 men and women who are currently serving time, some of which have underlying medical conditions.
Due to “unlawful and unconstitutional confinement,” the suit, brought by attorneys at a Stamford law firm, Quinnipiac University School of Law, and Yale Law School, seeks to establish an emergency order that would immediately transfer FCI Danbury’s most medically vulnerable inmates to home confinement. Additionally, it asks for social distancing and hygiene measures to be implemented for those who would remain incarcerated. As a minimum-security prison, those incarcerated at FCI Danbury live in close quarters. They share communal bathrooms and dining areas and, just like the sleeping area in Orange Is The New Black, up to 100 people sleep beside each other in bunk beds.
“Public health experts uniformly agree that prisons are hot spots for the spread of COVID-19 that require prison officials to take swift action to protect the lives of those in their custody,” Sarah Russell, a lawyer on the case and professor at Quinnipiac University, told the CT Mirror. “FCI Danbury has completely disregarded these warnings, placing incarcerated people at an unbearable and unconstitutional risk of contracting the disease.”
Unlike so many other federal prisons, FCI Danbury is particularly not equipped to address the coronavirus outbreak, says the suit. According to the report, the facility does not have a separate medical unit or facility in which to isolate sick inmates. Those who complain of common COVID-19 symptoms are allegedly unable to get a medical exam and, due to a “woefully inadequate” number of test kits, they are not tested and are returned to the general population until symptoms worsen.
The lawsuit also alleges that inmates with high fevers and difficulty breathing remain untested and are not separated from crowded communal spaces. They refer to officials in the facility as being “deliberately indifferent” despite raised concerns. Prison staff allegedly deny inmates have fevers by blaming medical equipment or operator error, frequently requiring sick inmates to drink a glass of ice water before testing them again. Should a person still register a fever, the suit claims that medical staff often advise inmates to take Tylenol and send them back to their units.
And, perhaps more jarringly, plaintiffs claim that prison staff tell sick inmates that they “did the crime” and should “do the time,” adding that the virus is not “going to get you out of prison.” Refinery29 has reached out to the Federal Bureau of Prisons but they did not immediately respond.
As of April 23, 40 people incarcerated at Danbury and 30 staff have tested positive for the virus, and one incarcerated person has died, making it one of the largest outbreaks in the federal prison system. For weeks, advocates have been warning that, due to crowding and lack of access to basic hygiene needs, prisons could quickly become hotbeds for the outbreak. There is currently a call to release inmates for a number of reasons that would help mitigate these concerns: anyone within 60 days of their sentence end date, those with existing medical conditions, and low-level offenders. Still, medical professionals are still concerned that it is not enough of a reduction in the incarcerated population to keep prison medical facilities from being overwhelmed.
“By keeping more people in the jails, you are increasing the overall number of people who contract the virus,” David E. Patton, head of the federal public defender’s office in New York City, told the New York Times. “They are playing roulette with people’s lives.”
On April 3, Attorney General William Barr ordered the expedited release of prisoners to home confinement in prisons across the country where cases of COVID-19 have spiked. FCI Danbury is among the prisons where home confinement releases are being considered. All those approved for home confinement must complete a 14-day quarantine before they can be transferred.
According to the Bureau of Prison website, about 1,500 people total across the country have been transferred to home confinement since March 26. Eligibility was expanded to all at-risk inmates, in accordance with the CARES Act recently passed by Congress, not just those previously eligible for transfer to home confinement; however, it is unclear how many from FCI Danbury have been sent home to serve out their sentence or how the prison’s warden is determining eligibility.
“We are deeply concerned for the health and welfare of those inmates who are entrusted to our care, and for our staff, their families, and the communities we live and work in,” Scott Taylor, spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said in an email to the CT Mirror. “It is our highest priority to continue to do everything we can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our facilities.”