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Censorship of PLN article mentioned re radon lawsuits at CT prison

News Times, July 27, 2018.

Newtown prison target of legal action over radioactive radon



NEWTOWN — Garner Correctional Institute is facing two lawsuits claiming that dangerous levels of radon and uranium at the prison have caused cancer among correction officers and inmates.

A class action lawsuit announced earlier in the week in New Haven on behalf of correction officers is headed to state Superior Court in Waterbury, and grows out of a federal suit filed in 2017 representing inmates.

The latest claim contends that radon — a naturally occurring radioactive gas — killed at least two correction officers and caused nearly a dozen to contract cancer from dangerous levels of radon and uranium at the prison, according to attorney Lori Welch-Rubin of Bethany. Scott Semple, the commissioner of the state Department of Correction and other correction officials are the targets in both class action suits.
Correction Department officials declined to comment Friday citing the pending litigation.

Rubin claims state officials did little over more than two decades to prevent thousands of inmates and hundreds of prison guards from being exposed to high levels of the radioactive materials.

Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in the United States for nonsmokers, according to The American Cancer Society.

While smoking was banned at the prison when it first opened in 1992, the levels of radon in some parts of the facility are equal to smoking more than two and a half packs of cigarettes a day, Rubin stated in the earlier federal filing.

Tests by the town of Newtown have shown that the water contains as much as eight times the safe levels for uranium, Rubin maintains.

While the state is not required to test for radon in public areas other than schools, the federal government has been suggesting radon testing be completed since the late 1980s.

The area where the prison was built is also known to have a high potential for radon exposure, according to the federal suit.

“Forcing inmates to be exposed involuntarily to radon, a recognized human carcinogen, far in excess of any publicized safe level constitutes deliberate indifference by correctional officials, ” that suit states.

The high levels of radon at the prison were discovered in late 2013 after a teacher in one of its classrooms complained about potential exposure.

While federal guidelines warn of radon levels in excess of 4.0 picocuries per liter, areas of the prison showed levels in excess of 20 pCi/L, the federal suit states.

Welch-Rubin said employees were told about the problem in 2014 and given a one-year window to apply for workers compensation benefits, but those who had already retired or were transferred to other facilities were not notified.

A retired guard, who wasn’t named, was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in 2016 and lived for about five months after the diagnosis, the attorney said.

”If he had been told years before when state officials knew about the problem he’d probably still be alive today,” Welch-Rubin said.

While the federal government has set the “action level” for radon at 4.0 pCi/L, health officials advise residents that levels above 2.0 pCi/L should be of concern, according to Allison Sullivan an environmental analyst with the state Department of Public Health’s radon unit.

Sullivan also said all of the areas in the prison had been tested for radon, which runs counter to allegations in the lawsuit.

“We tested each of the correctional bubble in each of the residential areas,” she said. “They identified a problem and did what they had to do to fix it.”

The leading plaintiff in the new lawsuit is Frank Crose, the first warden at the prison who was diagnosed with nodules on his lungs. Other plaintiffs say they’ve been diagnosed with a variety of ailments from breast and lung cancer to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The federal lawsuit claims the testing done in 2014 was limited and officials intentionally didn’t test areas where the inmates were housed. A mitigation system that was put into place after the testing also doesn’t cover the areas where the inmates are housed, the lawsuit states.

Officials with the Department of Corrections went so far as to censor an article in Prison Legal News that discussed the problem, according to the filings.

”The Department of Corrections removed and censored the article as part of its ongoing effort to cover up what took place at Garner and to keep prisoners who were housed at Garner ignorant of the potential medical risks," stated one of the inmates, Scott Pickles, in an affidavit filed as part of the federal lawsuit.

”No member of the Department of Correction has ever informed me that I was exposed to radon while incarcerated at Garner,” he said.

Lawyers representing the state argued in federal court Monday in New Haven that the case should be withdrawn citing immunity state officials have from litigation.

A decision on the motion has yet to be announced.