COVID crisis at Danbury prison

Inmates at the Danbury Federal Correctional Camp in Connecticut, also known as “Camp Cupcake,” have been overwhelmed by COVID-19. According to formal allegations from US Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, and Representative Jahana Hayes, over half of the women currently incarcerated at Danbury FCI tested positive for COVID-19 this month, often receiving little to no assistance from staff, which has only exacerbated the ongoing crisis. Advocates are demanding immediate action, including calling for the Bureau of Federal Prisons to release all incarcerated individuals who are medically vulnerable to finish their sentences through home confinement.

In this episode of Rattling the Bars, co-host-in-training Charles Hopkins, better known as Mansa Musa, speaks about the ongoing COVID crisis at Danbury with Dianthe Dawn Brooks and Wendy Kraus-Heitmann. Dianthe Dawn Brooks is a community organizer who was formerly incarcerated at the Danbury Federal Correctional Camp. Wendy Kraus-Heitmann is an advocate who has a passion for criminal justice reform, ending mass incarceration, and assisting justice impacted individuals reclaiming their lives. She lives in Connecticut, where she works on securing housing for returning citizens.

Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Transcript

Charles Hopkins:             Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. A recent report states that 50% of the women at Danbury Correctional Facility have COVID. Here to talk about this is Wendy and Dawn. Thank you all for coming.

Dianthe Dawn Brooks:      Thank you for having us. Thank you.

Charles Hopkins:           Mm-hmm (affirmative). Give us a little background on the Danbury Prison. Is it a federal prison or is it a state prison? Either one of y’all can take it.

Dianthe Dawn Brooks:       It’s a federal facility that houses men and women. They have both a camp, a medium for women and a medium for men. Low end medium for men.

Charles Hopkins:           How many women are housed there?

Dianthe Dawn Brooks:     Currently in the camp there are 84 people. When we were there it was a little over a hundred people.

Charles Hopkins:           84 people? Okay.

Dianthe Dawn Brooks:      Yes.

Charles Hopkins:          What are the conditions that the women are living under, Wendy?

Wendy Kraus-Heitmann:      Well, it’s been very difficult right now because at the best of times the facilities at Danbury are rather run down and in serious need of repair. Honestly, the whole place needs to be bulldozed. It would never pass any sort of structural health inspection, construction, anything like that. So right now they’re in conditions where not only are they isolated and put into quarantine rooms, but they often do not have adequate heat. They don’t have hot water a lot of the time. And I don’t mean the hot water goes off now and then. I mean the majority of the time it’s off. And it’s not because somebody’s flipping a switch for punishment or anything. It’s just that the facility is that old, decrepit, and run down. So they are quarantined, segregated from one another in different units. And then on top of it they’ve got these decrepit facilities that they have to deal with.

And then when the food comes, it’s brought from an… Because there are three prisons on the same grounds. And so when the food is coming now they’re not cooking for themselves anymore, it’s coming from one of the other facilities. And they’re in styrofoam boxes. And a lot of times by the time you get it from one building to another, it’s cold and it’s been moved around a lot so it’s all mixed up. And I mean, that may sound small, but it actually… You mix like meat with some applesauce. It’s not a good thing. It’s difficult for them to have any kind of just adequate care. And you’re talking about people that are sick with COVID here. So…

Charles Hopkins:           Right.

Wendy Kraus-Heitmann:      Yeah. It’s difficult for them. And then on top of it, because of the way they’re quarantined, they haven’t had very much access, especially definitely not consistent access, to email, telephones, video visits. That’s all been cut off. And obviously the families are very worried about them. Because you don’t get any news of that. In other prisons… Like, I know someone right now who’s at Federal Medical Center in Rochester, in the men’s facility there, and in their unit they have telephones and computers. So they’re able to be locked down and still communicate with the outside world. But at Danbury you have to leave your unit to go to the telephones and the computers. So nobody’s able to go to them because they can’t keep them separate from one another.

Charles Hopkins:          Right.

Wendy Kraus-Heitmann:      Yeah. So it’s been really difficult, really difficult on their families.

Charles Hopkins:              Right. Right. Why do you think there are so many cases of COVID in Danbury?

Dianthe Dawn Brooks:       Because there’s no ability to have six feet distancing. You are in a cubicle for the camp, you’re in a cubicle with one bunkmate. There’s not even six feet between you and the person that you share that bunk with. And each bunk is literally like office cubicles, one next to the other. And the men’s facilities and the other women’s facilities, the women down the hill in the medium, they live in one big room. Literally. Their cubicle walls are half walls. So you could see from one place to the other and everybody’s breathing all over each other And so, there’s just no way for them to properly distance. That was the whole point in pushing to get people out of Danbury when we had the court order under Judge Shea that they could release as many people as possible in the CARES Act because it’s impossible for them to do what’s right, to ensure that people are safe.

Charles Hopkins:             And as you speak of the CARES Act, what is the administration doing to remedy this?

Dianthe Dawn Brooks:        The administration has done very little. The first group of people that got released didn’t get released because they properly used the CARES Act. They got released because we literally sued in the Connecticut court and it was an order issue that made them have to let people go without the parameters of how much time they had and all the other minor things that they were trying to take into consideration. That settlement agreement expired in October. And we only know of one person that has left the facility under CARES Act since the expiration of that order.

For the camp, there’s really no reason for people to be there. If you made it to the camp you’re already low or minimum in most cases. To be in a camp you have to be considered secure because there are no locked doors and all of those various things. You could really walk off the premises. So the idea that those folks can’t be transferred to home confinement is really silly. There’s no barriers that prevent them from doing it outside of BOP. It’s a prison. It’s meant to confine people. And so, they look at every possible way to keep somebody inside versus every possible way to release them.

Charles Hopkins:                Right. What’s going on on the outside? Who’s occupying that space to try to highlight this and bring this to them other than yourselves?

Wendy Kraus-Heitmann:     Okay. So in the community, we’re actually pretty lucky. There have been several different groups. One of them is the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. They’ve been helping a lot. At different times the ACLU has been involved as well. And there’s no way that I could say enough about how much work and effort the people at FAMM, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, have done. Like, they’ve all been advocating and trying to talk to politicians, legislators, even the president, to try to get something done here and in the administrations.

But it’s not just them either. There’s groups of legal advocacy clinics in the Quinnipiac Law School and in Yale also. And there’s even like a couple of places that… And I hesitate to name them because I don’t know how much they want it known that they want it done, but they know who they are and they’ll appreciate the shout out. But there’ve been a couple law firms that have stuck their neck out and tried to file some actions to try to get some more information out of there so that we can have statistics and numbers so that when we go in public and say, hey, they could be releasing a lot more. Well, how do you know that? How many people? Well, because their statistics say so. And we’re waiting on those statistics right now, but we know that they’re there because we’ve talked to the people inside who are absolutely eligible for CARES. They should be out.

Dianthe Dawn Brooks:      In addition, we’ve had Color of Change that has been working with us for almost a year now on various priorities. They have a petition out right now relevant to Danbury. You could find it on their Color of Change website. And we’ve also had some involvement from the Ladies of Hope Ministry. So not to try to leave anybody out.

Wendy Kraus-Heitmann:       Yeah. I don’t even know all of the groups. So thank you, Dawn, for chipping in on them.

Charles Hopkins:              Okay. But we have a vast and a broad network of people supporting the women at Danbury. How are the women? Well, how are their spirits in regard to what’s going on with them?

Dianthe Dawn Brooks:       I think everybody’s frustrated right now. We know more could be done by the administration and BOP and they’re just not doing it. We’ve had several actions over the last year and a half. When we first came out last year we organized a protest to highlight the conditions that were still going on and the fact that even with the Judge’s order they were slow to release people. And it’s continued. So I think right now if you were to talk to any advocate or entity we would all say the same thing. They could do a lot more and they’re just not. And so we’re going to continue to put the pressure on them, hoping that at some point, somebody will make a decision that is right, and that is to release as many people as possible so that they could lessen the spread of COVID and keep people safe.

Charles Hopkins:           Right. And what can the general public do? We know that we got this vast network as you outlined. But what can the general public do to heighten the attention about the conditions that the women at Danbury are undergoing at this time?

Dianthe Dawn Brooks:        I’m going to start. Wendy, you could chime in. But you could start with signing that petition, you can call your local US Congress and senators who have legislative authority over BOP and the Department of Justice. You can call BOP and complain. There are many Facebook pages with actions and there are even some protests being planned. If they just plug into the network, they would get information as we move forward. On Facebook, we have a page, Don’t Send Them Back, and I’ll let Wendy take it from there because she could explain.

Wendy Kraus-Heitmann:      Okay. So in addition to all those things, one of the things that I think is really difficult when you’re somebody who’s still inside is you feel completely cut off from the rest of the world. Even though you do have some email or phone privileges, although the women of Danbury don’t really have them very consistently right now, it’s still not the unimpeded communication that people have the liberty to enjoy when they’re outside, obviously. So it feels very lonely. It feels like people are just going on with their lives and don’t care about you. So if you have people who are inside, send them letters for goodness sake. And there are several groups that you can get involved with that will match you with people.

There’s this wonderful journalist. She’s on Twitter a lot, but she’s very, very prominent and had stuff published nationwide. Keri Blakinger. And she will hook you up with people who need books because that’s the best way to pass time ever. She’s got a whole list of people and books that they would love to have sent to them. And you can do things like that. If you want to help somebody directly, just to lift their spirits up.

We do have a group, when Dawn and I got out, one of the things that we noticed right away was that people were in danger of being sent back. Now that we did all this work to get out, we certainly didn’t want to be sent back. So we formed a group called Don’t Send Us Back. There’s a website, dontsendusback.org, and it connects to all our various social media. We’re on Twitter, we’re on Facebook. We have the website itself. And we just coordinate with one another and tell each other things like, be careful to make sure you answer all your calls when they call. Be careful that you don’t use mouthwash that has alcohol in it. Make sure you check your mouthwash because that can be problematic if you just brushed your teeth and then you go do a breathalyzer. You know? Things like that.

And also just helping people navigate the bureaucracy, sometimes, of making sure that they stay out. And in addition, because we know how blessed we are, literally, to be out, how extremely lucky we are, privileged, straight up, to be out, we also spend time keeping track of the people who are still inside and finding out what we can do. A lot of us, because we got out the way we did, we have a lot of legal contacts. So we help them. We try to point lawyers to situations where they need help and where they might need even more help. Like, the people at Alderson right now are going through it in a horrible way. Absolutely like human rights violation level stuff. And we’ve tried to reach out to help them in any way that we can in the same way.

So these are the things that you can do. But one of the best things that you can do that impacts the most, honestly, is call your congressional reps and your senators because they’re the ones who have the influence over the BOP. And they’re the ones who do things like have the judiciary committee meetings where they drag them in there and they ask them questions, and they have to answer to them. And so if you are writing your representative to sing like, hey, this is important to me, that helps. It really does.

Charles Hopkins:            Okay, good. Why do you think that the women’s prison’s prisoners are being subjected to such harsh treatment unlike the men?

Dianthe Dawn Brooks:        I think the men organized better. Up until us in Danbury there had not been a contingent of women that really stuck together around the issue. We organized while we were inside. So things that we didn’t like we came together to not go to the cafeteria or various things like that that the men are excellent at. But the women are not normally as good at it. And so that leaves some room because when the men start acting up they immediately cave and give them what they want but they’re not accustomed to the women coming together. So I know it had been done years ago and we brought it back while we were there. And we continue to try to tell the people who are inside now, through their families and loved ones, how they can come together so that they can continue to fight, what information to send out so that we can try to be helpful to them.

But I think it’s just a lack of people really understanding what prisons represent. These camps get nicknamed as Camp Cupcake and all of these different things when in all reality they are horrible situations and places. They lack medical care, they lack cleaning supplies. You have bathrooms with mold and mildew. You have conditions that are just deplorable. No human person should live there. And so, the idea that you are, because you’re at a camp, some luxury… I know my image of what a camp was, having never gone to prison, was totally different than my experience. And I would imagine that many people think the same thing. And so, just getting people to really understand what it represents and how bad the conditions are because it’s unfathomable when you really think about it.

Charles Hopkins:          Thank you, all. Any final thoughts that y’all want to share with the public? And y’all would split it up and give us your insights on what you want to share with the public.

Dianthe Dawn Brooks:     I would love to see as many people as possible write letters, call their congressional and their senate candidates, join FAMM, Color of Change, some of those organizations that are helping us so that you can continue to stay on the list and get information as we move forward with whatever we’re doing. Petitions, sometimes we have Facebook chats, et cetera. And if you have a loved one there or know somebody there, please not only stay in touch with them, but if you get information that could be helpful as we organize, you can find both Wendy and I on Facebook or on Twitter. And we welcome you sharing whatever information that will help us continue to stay in contact with the women and men inside and to move forward with the issues that they’re having.

Wendy Kraus-Heitmann:      Yeah.

Charles Hopkins:              And Wendy?

Wendy Kraus-Heitmann:       In addition to all of that, which I absolutely agree with too, one thing that I really want people to understand though is that this is not just a Danbury issue. We’re, what, not even three weeks into the year yet and already three women from Alderson have died from COVID. Camp Cupcake. Are you kidding me? This is serious. And what’s really tragic is there’s at least two of them that I think might have been CARES eligible and definitely would’ve been very much closer to their out dates had their first step credits been applied in a timely manner. And yet, they were stuck in that prison to get that. And here’s the thing. People say like, well, you can get COVID outside too. Absolutely you can. And you can also choose your treatment. You can choose when you want to seek out medical assistance. You can choose what kind of medication you do or don’t want to take. You are in charge of things.

When you are incarcerated, you are at the mercy of whoever thinks that you are sick enough to go to the hospital or not, sick enough to merit care or not. And it must be stated, there is a presumption underlying everything involving incarceration that the inmate is lying. That is the first thing that they start with assuming. So if you go to them and you say, I’m sick. I’m hurt. Somebody beat me up. Somebody treated me wrong. My rights are being violated, the first thing that any staff member or administrative person, whether it be the BOP or the government, thinks is the inmate is lying. So when you’re sick and miserable and you need healthcare and you say, I’m dying. Send me the hospital, they think you’re saying it for attention. They think you’re saying it just because you want to go somewhere on a field trip.

So they ignore you until they’re really sure. That’s where you get the stories of women giving birth in jail cells. It’s like that. And I really want people to understand that. Also, that these people that we’re talking about in the federal prison camps, Dawn mentioned it earlier, that there are no locks. There are no fences. And they are still staying there in these deplorable conditions because they don’t want to get in trouble. They don’t want to get more charges. They don’t want to get brought back by the marshals. They’re afraid to get in trouble. They’re trying to follow the rules and they’re staying there for that. So you’re going to tell me that they’re a danger in the community? Are you serious right now? Come on. So we’ve got to get these people out. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be in the communities.

Dianthe Dawn Brooks:      When you take a place like Danbury, the camp specifically, there is no nurse or doctor assigned there every day from some time period. They have a person that comes in in the morning, in the afternoon, and in the evening to give out medicine and take sick calls. But there’s no person physically there. So if something happens to you, you have to wait for them to even call medical to come up to the building, depending on who determines what the priority is, depends on how long it takes.

We’ve had scenarios where women have been… I had an allergic reaction to peanuts while I was inside and it took them literally about two hours to get a person up. Thankfully, I was not dying, but I had already turned beet red, I was starting to break out. And the idea that you have to wait on medical without somebody really even assessing how serious it is. And if you look at today’s COVID statistics on BOP, they reached their highest numbers since the pandemic started of COVID positive staff and inmates. So that means they didn’t learn anything from a year plus ago when we started this. And so they have to be willing to do something different. And unless we demand it, it’s not going to happen.

Charles Hopkins:             One last question. Why do you think the BOP is so reluctant to let these women go? As you outlined, the lesser security and the lesser security, they can literally walk away. Why do you think the BOP is so harsh on not wanting to let these women go?

Dianthe Dawn Brooks:    I remind people every day that BOP is responsible for keeping a person incarcerated. Their job, their correction officers, their staff is paid as a function of the number of inmates. A lot of them have that same attitude of, you should just shut up and do your time. They don’t care about conditions, et cetera. Much like we talk about that Code Blue within police departments, they have some of those same codes within correctional facilities. And so, you don’t have any rights. You’re not perceived as a person. You’re literally perceived as a number. Your registration number is what you are known by in most cases. And so, it really dehumanizes the person that is sitting there incarcerated and what should be done for them versus what is.

Wendy Kraus-Heitmann:       Well, I think one of the first things that should be done is that the BOP needs to be ordered to release anybody who is CARES eligible. I don’t understand why it’s even a question. Like, most of the prisons looked at the CARES Act, and from what we can see, just thought of it as optional. Considering how many people we’ve run into, family members who have contacted us say, why isn’t my person out? They’ve got this much time in, they like they’ve never had a shot, they’re a low risk is called their recidivism score. Like, why aren’t they out? Well, I don’t know. They just don’t want to.

And people have filed the forms requesting to be evaluated for CARES home confinement and gotten a note back from the warden saying like, well, we don’t have COVID here right now. So we’re not going to do that. In another facility, the warden replied that even though there was COVID there at the moment, they were perfectly fine handling it there themselves. So they didn’t need to use CARES. It’s like, this wasn’t a choice. You’re supposed to be doing this. Congress gave you a direct order.

Charles Hopkins:           Right. And Dawn, what’s your final thought?

Dianthe Dawn Brooks:      I believe we need to take it one step further and we need to look at how we decarcerate these prison systems as a whole. Prisons were never designed for women, and so they shouldn’t be there. In most cases, there are alternatives. We need to look at mental health counseling. We need to look at drug treatment programs. We need to look at the reasons why our women are ending up being incarcerated and let’s change the system. And in the cases where people make mistakes, let’s find alternatives. There are community outlets that could be utilized to keep people on the outside. They’ve used home confinement effectively for 18 months for many of us who were released. We had the lowest recidivism rate in history. And so, that shows that it can be done. It’s proven that you could release people and your community would still be safe and they would not end up being violated, et cetera. And so let’s use that more to look at alternatives to jail cells for women.

Charles Hopkins:            Now you have it. Dawn and Wendy are rattling the bars. Thank you for joining us in this edition of Rattling the Bars. We appreciate your support for these women of Danbury, for these two women that are doing remarkable work on behalf of incarcerated people throughout the country. Thank you very much.

Dianthe Dawn Brooks:       Thank you very much for having us on the show, for caring about the issue, and for your entire team. We look forward to coming back again, hopefully on another subject that won’t be, because we’re going to fight to free our women and our men from this process.

Wendy Kraus-Heitmann:      Yes. Thank you.

Charles Hopkins:               On behalf of Eddie and myself, we appreciate you for participating in this episode of Rattling the Bars. Thank you very much.

Charles Hopkins

Charles Hopkins, aka Mansa Musa, is a 70-year-old social activist. He was released from prison on December 5, 2019, after serving 48 years, nine months, 5 days, 16 hours, 10 minutes. He co-hosts the TRNN original show Rattling the Bars.