Suspect Awaiting Trial Found Dead with Prison-Issued Mask Tightly Wrapped Around Neck



COVID-19 has forced difficult decisions upon correctional facilities. Consider the issue of face masks.

On one hand, prisons have been breeding grounds for the coronavirus, which has led to mass inmate releases. You would think that for those who need to remain, face masks would be a reasonable form of protection.

On the other hand, consider the fact that face masks can provide certain prisoners with dangerous materials if they’re unsupervised. The moldable nose-bridge, for instance, is a metal strip. That’s something that can easily be weaponized — or used to self-harm. Cloth and rope can also be used, in certain circumstances, to harm oneself or someone else.

There’s a fine line to walk, then, particularly with inmates who’ve shown tendencies toward violence or have serious mental health issues.

In the case of 32-year-old Daniel Ocasio, the cloth mask became a means toward ending his own life, authorities said.

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According to WNYW-TV, Ocasio was found dead inside the Corrigan-Ragdowski Correctional Center in Uncasville, Connecticut, on Wednesday morning.

During a routine tour by a corrections staff member, Ocasio was discovered at 5:07 a.m. with the mask, fashioned into a ligature, tied around his neck.

He was taken to a local hospital and pronounced dead before 6 a.m.

Ocasio, a Windsor resident, had been in the facility since Aug. 5 in lieu of $10,000 bail. The Connecticut Post reported that he was being charged with third-degree burglary, third-degree criminal mischief, disorderly conduct and violation of a protective order.

Here’s where the problematic part comes in, however: During his arraignment, a judge ordered that Ocasio was to receive “mental health attention.” He didn’t order Ocasio placed on suicide watch, however.

At the time of his death, he’d been in a 14-day quarantine the state had agreed to impose on all prisoners entering the system after the American Civil Liberties Union sued Connecticut Democrat Gov. Ned Lamont and the state Department of Corrections.

The ACLU now wants answers regarding Ocasio’s death.

“The Department of Correction has a constitutional and moral responsibility to keep the people it incarcerates safe,” Connecticut ACLU Executive Director David McGuire said, according to the Connecticut Post.

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“Daniel Ocasio should still be alive today, and the DOC had a duty to prevent his death,” he said. “We expect and demand the DOC to complete a full investigation into how it allowed someone to die like this on its watch.”

This seems to be part of a wider pattern of failure in Connecticut’s prisons under Lamont’s leadership; it’s rare that you can get both corrections officers and prisoners to agree on anything, but both groups, according to WVIT-TV reporting in May and June, say the Department of Corrections has done a poor job handling the epidemic.

This is despite the fact that, as of May 1, 1,385 prisoners had been released by the state, according to the Connecticut Mirror. That was more than one out of every 10 — and it meant the lowest state prison population in 27 years.

According to the inmate numbers given in a New York Times report on Ocasio’s death, that’s been further reduced by 1,466 to 9,596.

A spokeswoman for the state’s prisons told The Times there would be a thorough investigation and the cloth used to make the ligature would be examined.

“With that being said, there are all sorts of authorized materials that could be used to self-harm,” spokeswoman Karen Martucci wrote in the email.

“We are not going to have a knee-jerk reaction here.”

One understands the exigencies of dealing with the novel coronavirus in a prison environment.

In Connecticut, 1,344 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus and 386 corrections officers have; seven inmates have died.

That said, when there are mental health concerns regarding a prisoner in quarantine, a bit more attention should be paid to what sort of access they have to masks and when they have it if there aren’t the resources available for suicide watch.

Martucci noted to The Times that inmates must wear masks upon entering a common area or exiting cells or cubicles. There is, for instance, a reasonable argument to be made that an inmate with mental health concerns shouldn’t have been given that mask unless he was exiting his cell or cubicle.

No, Connecticut shouldn’t make “a knee-jerk reaction,” as Martucci put it. Some kind of reaction is necessary, however.

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