CT Veterans Organizations Urge State to Protect Incarcerated Veterans Against COVID-19

As Connecticut enters into its second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress (NVCLR) and eight other organizations that serve veterans called on Governor Ned Lamont and the Department of Correction (DOC) to take immediate action to protect the health and lives of veterans incarcerated in state prisons. The Veterans Legal Services Clinic, part of the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School, represents NVCLR in the matter.

In a letter sent on Veterans Day, November 11, 2020, the groups urged the state government to release at-risk incarcerated veterans and take all necessary steps to guard Connecticut’s incarcerated veterans from the risks that COVID-19 poses to their physical and mental well-being, such as enforcing social distancing guidelines and providing access to mental health and legal support services.

Veterans are one of many groups particularly vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic, especially when residing in a congregate living center such as a prison. Connecticut veterans are both older than the national average for veterans and the average for Connecticut residents, putting them at greater risk for complications from COVID-19. Many have service-connected disabilities that both heighten the severity of the virus and compromise their ability to deal with the physical and mental health challenges that the virus poses, according to the groups.

Despite the known danger of COVID-19 to veterans and other at-risk incarcerated individuals, the letter alleges that the state has failed to follow basic public health guidance on how to respond to the pandemic. DOC did not reply to an April 2020 letter from NVCLR and other organizations that called for the release of at-risk incarcerated veterans. The ACLU of Connecticut recently highlighted ways that DOC has failed to comply with the court-mandated terms of the McPherson v. Lamont settlement, which requires that the Department regularly provide masks, distribute soap, and quarantine those who have tested positive for COVID-19.

On the state’s lack of action, NVCLR Executive Director Garry Monk, an Air Force veteran, said, “The Department of Correction and the Governor have the power to act now to protect veterans. Our asks are simple: enforce social distancing, provide basic cleaning supplies, offer sufficient mental health resources, and allow access to basic legal services. On this Veterans Day, we want to remind the state that it has an obligation to all those willing to risk their lives for this country to ensure that they are not sacrificed by this country.”

The letter demands that Connecticut take six steps to protect incarcerated veterans:

  1. Release incarcerated veterans and others who are at heightened risk from the virus, as within the powers permitted under existing state authorities;
  2. Enforce a more stringent social-distancing policy for all correctional officers and prison employees when they are in shared enclosed spaces with incarcerated individuals;
  3. Provide greater access to mental health services for incarcerated veterans, particularly those who have service-related conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder;
  4. Offer socially distanced programming led by military and veteran service organizations that support the rehabilitation and reentry needs of veterans;
  5. Ensure that no-cost personal hygiene supplies are readily available to incarcerated individuals, staff, and visitors; and
  6. Ensure incarcerated veterans have regular access to legal advice, including related to veterans’ health and disability benefits.

“For months, we have all seen what terrible damage  COVID-19 can do, and so now more than ever, it is essential that we protect incarcerated veterans from this deadly virus,” said Conley Monk, NVCLR Director, Marine Corps veteran, and a formerly incarcerated veteran. “If Connecticut is unwilling to take the simple step of releasing at-risk veterans, then it at least must protect those it keeps in prison by providing them with the basic necessities to keep their minds and bodies safe from the effects of COVID-19.”

The National Veterans Council for Legal Redress is a Connecticut-based veterans service organization that advocates on behalf of veterans and offers veterans support in obtaining employment, medical and educational benefits, and meals, clothing, transportation, and housing.

“While CVLC has continued to work for incarcerated veterans throughout the pandemic, there is still more work to be done,” said Chelsea Donaldson, Connecticut Veterans Legal Center Singer Fellow Staff Attorney. “We look forward to continuing to advocate on behalf of incarcerated veterans in order to provide access to healthcare, housing, and income. As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, we hope DOC continues to expand access to legal resources in order to provide incarcerated veterans their best second chance upon release."

The Veterans Legal Services Clinic, part of the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School, represents veterans and veterans’ organizations in national litigation and regulatory and legislative reform efforts.

“We are hopeful that Governor Lamont and the Department of Correction will release at-risk incarcerated veterans and make sure that safety measures are taken to ensure the wellbeing of those incarcerated,” said Rhea Christmas ’21, a member of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic. “The work NVCLR and other organizations are doing is crucial in holding the state accountable for the legal and moral obligations it owes to the incarcerated veteran population.”