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Frank Cannatelli is the latest in a growing list of attorneys in Connecticut and around the United States to file lawsuits over how prisoners have been treated since being transferred out of state. Since 1999, when Connecticut agreed to a transfer compact and sent 500 inmates to facilities in Virginia, several attorneys have filed suit, either on behalf of the inmates or their families, in the controversial area of how inmates are treated in out-of-state facilities. Cannatelli, who has lawsuits already pending for two inmates, said he is considering combining the cases into a class action suit against the state, which, he believes, is partially responsible for recent problems arising out of the transfers. “At least in Connecticut [the Department of Correction] is more sympathetic,” Cannatelli said. “Just because [the inmates] are incarcerated, they don’t need to be treated [poorly].” As of last week, there were 247 Connecticut inmates being housed at the Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap, Va., and 220 housed at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, according to DOC spokeswoman Christine Randolph. Following a recent public outcry from family members of Connecticut inmates, voiced through actions including candlelight vigils held at DOC Commissioner John Armstrong’s house and comments made to the press after a Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities meeting, the department announced it was redistributing its Virginia population between the maximum-security Wallens Ridge and a lower-security facility. On Jan. 11 members of the CHRO, who are investigating whether Connecticut inmates are being discriminated against or mistreated, infuriated family members of the transferred inmates by postponing their findings until a February meeting. The panel had initially said it would discuss those findings when it met in January. But CHRO Chairwoman Amalia Vazquez Bzdyra, a Wallingford, Conn., attorney who was recently reappointed to another term on the panel by Connecticut Gov. John Rowland, said the commission wanted to wait until member Vivian Blackford returned from a trip before discussing the findings. Blackford was one of a few CHRO members to visit Wallens Ridge last fall, along with members of the DOC. Although Rowland said he would not approve bringing the inmates back home, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said late last year that the commission could terminate Connecticut’s contract with Virginia if discriminatory practices or mistreatment were proven. Many of the family members have questioned why several inmates have been transferred from the state, despite having upcoming release dates, pending court cases, or non-violent convictions. As part of the interstate compact, inmates with pending court cases or less serious convictions are not supposed to be transferred to Virginia facilities. Others have raised issues about racism, especially at Wallens Ridge, where, although the majority of staff is white, most of the inmates transferred have been minorities. “You’re going to send blacks and Hispanics to a remote part of the Appalachian Mountains and not think there is a certain mindset there?” said Judi Walters, co-founder of Friends & Family Who Care, a community support group for inmate families and friends. Canatelli said his pending suits involve issues concerning the medical treatment of Connecticut inmates during transportation procedures, including one trip en route to Virginia. Canatelli said that although prisoners and DOC staff were injured in both cases, only the corrections staff received timely medical attention. Milford, Conn., attorney David Rozwaski represents at least six inmates transferred to Virginia, while Richard Bieder, of the Bridgeport, Conn., firm of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, represents the families of inmates David Tracey and Lawrence Frazier, both of who died in Virginia last year under questionable circumstances. Antonio Ponvert, an attorney with Bieder’s firm also working on the inmate cases, said he recently learned that the Virginia Department of Correction canceled its arrangement with a private contractor to provide medical and mental health services for its inmates, based upon a 1999 report that concluded the contractor was not providing adequate services to inmates. “We’ll certainly use that to our advantage,” Ponvert said of the lawsuits.

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