HARTFORD — Guards and inmates at a Connecticut prison find themselves on the same side of a legal fight against the state, which they say did not do enough to prevent their exposure to radon.
A federal judge last month ruled against the state’s attempt to dismiss a lawsuit by 13 inmates inside the Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown. They allege Correction Department officials exposed them to high levels of the radioactive gas, creating unconstitutional and inhumane conditions of confinement inside the maximum-security prison.
A separate lawsuit was filed in state court in August by 16 former guards and staff members, several of whom suffer from respiratory ailments. It asserts the staff should have been informed of the radon problem.
“They told the current guards, but they didn’t tell the retirees,” said Lori Welch-Rubin, an attorney who finds herself in the unusual position of representing both prisoners and their former guards. “There was one gentleman who found out two years later that he had Stage 4 lung cancer and died four months after the diagnoses. Had he known to get tested, they could have caught it earlier and saved his life.”
Frank Crose, who served as warden between 1992 and 1996, became the lead plaintiff after being diagnosed with nodules on his lungs.
Welch-Rubin alleges the state knew about the potential for problems with radon at Garner when it was opened in 1992 but did not begin testing until 2013, when it was requested by a teacher at the prison’s school. The state has required radon testing at all schools since 2003, she said.
Those tests found extremely high levels of radon inside the classrooms, which are on the second floor, she said.
“We’re talking about levels in some places that are equivalent to smoking 2 ½ packs of cigarettes a day,” she said. “Not just being exposed to smoke, actually smoking 2 ½ packs a day.”
Connecticut Correction Department spokesman Andrius Banevicius said the state now routinely tests for radon in the prison and recently completed the installation of a radon mitigation system there.
The state, he said, is reviewing the Sept. 27 decision by U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton, which rejected the state’s attempt to have the federal lawsuit dismissed based on claims of qualified and sovereign immunity.
Welch-Rubin asserts the mitigation system doesn’t cover all areas of the prison and used pipes that were too small to properly vent the gas, which is naturally occurring and seeps into the prison from the surrounding bedrock.
She plans to seek class-action status for the lawsuit on behalf of all inmates who have been housed at Garner.
After the 2013 testing, she said, current guards were told to get a baseline chest X-ray and file forms that would allow them to seek workers compensation if they develop health problems in the future.
“They still haven’t tested where the prisoners are,” she said, “so we don’t know if what they are now doing is even adequate.”