Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker told lawmakers Wednesday that the threat of coronavirus is already straining Vermont's prison system, but he argued that releasing inmates could further endanger them.
Speaking by phone to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Baker said that the outbreak has worsened the Department of Corrections' preexisting workforce crisis. "By the middle of next week, our staffing will be stressed inside the facility," he said.
To make up for a projected shortage of corrections officers, the department plans to train and certify some of its 143 probation and parole officers to work inside the state's six prisons.
According to Baker, the department has managed to reduce Vermont's prison population from 1,671 to 1,628 over the past three weeks, but he cautioned against opening the gates too wide.
"I hear from a lot of folks about who should be let out of jail," he said. "But I gotta tell you, I'd be worried about the level of care that they'd get outside. The system would be stressed even more. It's not as simple as people [are] making it sound. And in some case, folks have nowhere to go."
According to Baker, no Vermont prisoners have been given a test for the virus because none have exhibited symptoms that would require one — and because test kits are in short supply.
Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden) told Baker that he believed every inmate in the state should be tested. "If we had test kits, that would be ideal, but we don't," the commissioner responded.
As Seven Days reported Monday, the Vermont Prisoners' Rights Office has called on the department to use its furlough authority to release "as many inmates as possible." Defender General Matthew Valerio warned that the prisons could become "cruise ship"-like environments if the virus enters the facilities.
On Tuesday, Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George joined prosecutors around the country in calling for a "dramatic reduction" in the nation's prison population as coronavirus spreads. On Wednesday, ACLU of Vermont executive director James Lyall called on Gov. Phil Scott to "act immediately to protect the lives of people in Vermont's prison system" by releasing current inmates, limiting new admissions, and taking measures to protect the health and safety of those under the department's supervision.
"Vermont has days, not weeks, to take meaningful preventive action," Lyall wrote.
The department has taken some steps to keep coronavirus out of the prisons, including banning in-person visits and enhancing medical screening of new inmates. "The way we're gonna end up getting the virus in the facilities is through the front door," Baker told lawmakers. "Anything we can do to mitigate people coming and going is our strategy."
According to John Campbell, executive director of the Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs, Vermont prosecutors "are doing everything [they] can to make sure that people are not being brought into the system" unnecessarily. Only in "the most extreme circumstances" are they being sent to prison, he told committee members.
Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson said he was working with Campbell's and Valerio's offices to review a list of inmates provided by the Department of Corrections to "see if there's folks we can move out of there."
Campbell said prosecutors throughout the state had been "inundated" with motions seeking the release of prisoners.
"Certainly there are some that, if we were able to make sure that they have some available housing ... it would be fine to go ahead and release them," he said. "There are others that have other serious issues that I think if released ... into the community would absolutely jeopardize the safety of those in the communities where they're released."