None of the approximately 1,200 people jailed by the Vermont Department of Corrections died of COVID-19, making it the only state in the country with no coronavirus deaths among its jailed population. But while protocols like regular testing and lockdowns may have helped Vermont prisons avoid the worst of the pandemic, the strict lockdown measures have taken their toll.
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During the pandemic, some of Vermont’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks occurred in prisons. More than a third of those in prison in the state contracted the disease.
On February 25, the correctional facility received COVID-19 test results from Northern Correctional Facility: One employee and 21 detainees were positive. Officials were quick to completely lock down the Newport facility in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.
That meant that 52-year-old Todd Gorton and his bunk mate were almost completely locked in a four-by-eight-foot cell. They only got out to shower 15 minutes a day.
“The craziest thing is that you can’t move, you can’t walk out the door.” – Todd Gorton, incarcerated at NSCF
“The craziest thing is you can’t move, you can’t walk out the door,” Gorton said in a phone interview. “You are being held prisoner – I mean the door is closed; you do nothing. “
Before the pandemic, people in prison routinely abandoned their cells for things like meals and exercise. But DOC suspended community activities during the pandemic. At the start of the crisis, they even released about 300 people to make room for more social distancing – despite advocates pushing for them to release more people. Full lockdowns, such as those of the Northern State Correctional Facility, were applied when cases arose.
Ultimately, 179 people incarcerated in Newport Prison, roughly half the population, tested positive for COVID-19. Gorton did not catch the virus, but was stuck in his cell for 49 days.
“They cause a lot of fear, a lot of stress,” he said. “And then the humiliation of just having to shit in front of your bunkie … It was unbearable.”
The Northern State Correctional Facility had the longest lockdown of any state prison in Vermont. A DOC spokesman said the department hadn’t counted the number of pandemic-related lockdowns but said all six state prisons had them.
These measures could have slowed the spread of COVID-19, but research shows that restrictive housing practices have detrimental effects on mental health.
Keramet Reiter, associate professor of criminology and law at the University of California Irvine, said prolonged incarceration can lead to symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“And that includes hallucinations, insomnia, insomnia, difficulty modulating your emotions. All kinds of major mental health crises can result, ”she said.
“We had to do something that was going to be drastic, but … what’s the lesser evil?” – Interim DOC Commissioner Jim Baker
Prison officials had few options, said Interim DOC Commissioner Jim Baker: “We had to do something that was going to be drastic, but … what’s the lesser of two evils?” And the lesser of two evils was doing what we did so we can stop the virus from spreading. “
When asked by VPR, Baker admits that the revocation protocol likely caused permanent damage.
“There are no two options,” he said. “So these decisions weren’t easy. But they had to be done to protect us and ensure that we do not lose human lives in large numbers. “
All Vermont prisons reported some cases of COVID-19, but none died.
Defender General Matt Valerio, who oversees the prisoner’s rights bureau, said the DOC’s response to the pandemic, given the circumstances, has been the best it could have been.
“The immediate threat was that of the virus, and then you had to try to manage your mental health as best you could,” Valerio said.
Valerio said DOC is open to requests from his office, such as giving detainees tablets so they can video calls with family. Personal visits have been suspended since March last year.
The prison restrictions will not be lifted until the vaccination rate for those in custody improves – it is currently around 68%.
Baker, the DOC commissioner, said he hoped families would be allowed to visit by July.
“But we’re going very slowly because we want to make sure we’re doing this consciously and not slipping backwards and taking the risk of another outbreak in a facility,” he said.
DOC may require vaccines for visitors and those incarcerated who want to meet with family members or outside groups, Baker said.
“The immediate threat was that of the virus, and then you had to try to manage your mental health as best you could.” – Vermont Defense Attorney General Matt Valerio
The threat of a new coronavirus case and further lockdown weighs on some of those detained in Vermont. The Northern State Correctional Facility was forced into another lockdown shortly after it was freed from an outbreak after an employee tested positive.
Gorton, incarcerated in Newport, has about a year left. He said it was exhausting to walk back and forth between the locks: “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone – I’m serious.”
The last lockdown in prison is now over. Gorton, who has a job in the prison timber shop, said commuting to work helps reduce his stress levels. But he’s still worried that if another case comes up, he’ll be back in his cell – and stuck there.
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