A SUPERIOR COURT judge denied a preliminary injunction that would have required the state Department of Correction to make specific efforts to further reduce its prison population in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

Superior Court Judge Robert Ullmann ruled that there was not enough evidence of “deliberate indifference” toward the virus threat by the DOC. 

“The Court fully understands the consequences of any lapses in preventing the spread of the virus that has killed at least 19 prison inmates,” Ullmann wrote. But he said any lapses “reflect sporadic mistakes and sporadic lack of sufficient attention to detail,” which don’t meet the standard of “deliberate indifference necessary to establish a constitutional violation.”

The decision came as part of an ongoing case brought by Prisoners’ Legal Services on behalf of prisoners who have decried the close quarters in correctional facilities and the state’s lack of plan for medium and maximum security prisoners at facilities plagued with continued surges of the virus.

In an unusual move, Ullmann chose to leave the door open to further preliminary injunctions, saying that prisoners and their attorneys can amend their complaint to include arguments they filed in a brief in late January, when the judge said he was already deliberating his decision. 

The argument in that document was that the Department of Correction hasn’t been abiding by a December law, enacted as part of the state budget, that requires the agency to take considerable effort to reduce its inmate population. The issue came up before Ullmann in a hearing last week, where he asked both parties about the legislation and noted it could have some bearing in his decision-making moving forward.

The DOC claimed that Commissioner Carol Mici had followed the law by properly exercising her discretion over inmate releases.

The lawsuit has focused on medium and maximum security prisoners being assessed for home confinement, but Mici has focused on release to home confinement, through the state’s electronic monitor program, of about two dozen minimum security prisoners, and hasn’t addressed medium or maximum security prisoners.  Only four minimum security inmates have been released so far, out of 6,500 total prisoners in the DOC system. 

 “We are pleased that the court’s decision allows the plaintiffs to amend the complaint in an expedited fashion to address directly the DOC’s affirmative release obligations under the budget item language,” said PLS director Lizz Matos on Wednesday night. The organization plans to amend its complaint.

 Ullmann noted that conditions inside DOC facilities continue to deny inmates “basic needs and present a risk of serious harm,” referencing 96 active COVID-19 cases the first week of February, and the low vaccine take-up rate among correctional officers, more than half of whom have declined to be vaccinated.