Vermont Department of Corrections reduces prison population in response to Covid-19 outbreak; first inmate tests positive

By MAREN WALSH

COURTESY PHOTO
Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield is one of six Department of Corrections facilities in Vermont. In response to the outbreak of Covid-19, the DOC has been under pressure by social organizations to reduce the state prison population.

As prisons around the country struggle to respond to the Covid-19 outbreak, the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC) is working to reduce the prison population in order to facilitate social distancing. The number of inmates in the state decreased by more than 225 between Feb.24 and April 3, down from 1,671 to 1,445. 

“We’re trying to do this using our system in place so that it’s fair and balanced. We go through the process, [and] we’ve sped the process up,” Department of Corrections Commissioner James Baker told The Campus. “What we can’t do is have someone call us up and advocate for an individual to be released.”

The DOC has been in contact with advocacy groups in the area to develop their response to the pandemic. The Vermont Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recommended that the DOC release individuals who are being detained pre-trial, those at particular risk for the virus due to age or health conditions and those who have already served the minimum portions of their sentences.  

James Lyall, the Execute Director of the Vermont ACLU, urged the DOC to continue to take the Covid-19 crisis seriously. Acknowledging that the DOC has taken important steps to reduce the number of incarcerated Vermonters and address facility conditions, Lyall believes that there is still more to be done. “There are still elderly, infirm, and particularly vulnerable people who remain incarcerated,” he wrote in an email to The Campus. “Social distancing is fundamentally not possible in correctional settings.” Lydall urged that the DOC could be more transparent about the ways it plans to safeguard public health within its facilities.  

The Vermont ACLU released a letter to Governor Phil Scott on March 18, urging his administration to take significant action to protect Vermont’s prison population. As of April 5, the ACLU confirmed that the Scott administration had not responded to the letter. 

In addition to reducing the prison population, the DOC has implemented various measures to protect staff and inmates. “We’re chasing supplies like everyone else,” Baker said. “We’ve secured as many supplies as we can, and are cleaning the facilities as often as we can.” 

The DOC has also shut down all in-person visitation, though it is offering one free video-visitation per week to each inmate. “Our strategy is to mitigate the entrance of the virus by limiting as much inbound and outbound traffic,” Baker said. Any new inmate to enter the system is quarantined for 14 days, according to the DOC. 

At the time of The Campus’s interview with Baker, no inmates in Vermont had tested positive for Covid-19. Since then, however, an inmate at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton tested positive for the virus, the DOC announced Wednesday morning. The DOC said it would test all inmates and staff members within 24 hours.

On March 23, the DOC announced that a staff member at Northern Correctional Facility in Newport, Vermont had tested positive for coronavirus. The DOC announced a second positive test result on April 1 for a staff member at the facility in Swanton. Since that time, two more staff members at the Northwest Facility have tested positive. The DOC announced on April 6 that the Northwest State Correctional Facility would remain on modified lockdown to monitor possible coronavirus exposure. 

Vermont, like many other parts of the country, must move forward despite a relative lack of testing capacity. “In an ideal world, we’d be testing all the time,” said Commissioner Baker. “But the fact of the matter is, we’re following all the guidelines from the Vermont Department of Health. We test when someone exhibits symptoms of the virus.” 

Upon release, prisoners are entering a very uncertain environment. Social organizations in the area such as Dismas of Vermont, an organization that provides housing and support to newly released prisoners, continue to play a vital role in reintroducing prisoners to society throughout the pandemic. These prisoners face distinct challenges in the age of coronavirus, according to Jan-Roberta Tarjan, the executive director of Dismas of Vermont. 

“People who are coming out of prison are coming out of a very restricted environment: a cell, the confines of a prison,” Tarjan said. “They’re anticipating great physical freedom and more freedom of relationships … to be with their families, of course, and to have employment. And they cannot do most of these things now.”

Tarjan noted that many residents in Dismas houses are not quarantined at home, but rather work in jobs that are considered essential, such as food retailing and manufacturing. They have continued to contribute to the community despite difficult circumstances. 

“Each of our houses can accept from nine to 11 residents, and those beds are filled,” Tarjan said. Yet despite the difficulty of re-entry during Covid-19, she remains optimistic about the situation. 

“There’s a good aspect of this, and that is we are releasing people from prison more rapidly than we have been,” Tarjan said. “It accelerates a path we were already on for bringing people out and reducing the [prison] population. And while this is a difficult way to do it, I don’t think it’s a bad thing.”

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