A February 2020 photograph of a Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility shower drain taken by Office of Prisoners' Rights investigator Hillary Reale
In a ruling this week, a Vermont judge likened conditions in a shower room at the state's women's prison to an outhouse. But, he wrote, the situation was not dire enough to warrant action by the court.
Vermont Superior Court Judge Samuel Hoar rejected a bid by inmate Mandy Conte to compel the Department of Corrections to fix up the House 2 showers at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. Hoar handed down his decision two months after a bench trial on the matter.
Conte, who has been incarcerated in the South Burlington prison since February 2019, sued the state that September, alleging that the department had failed to maintain safe and sanitary conditions at the facility. She claimed that the showers, which serve 30 to 40 women, reeked of human waste and were infested with sewer flies, maggots and mold.
"It smells like a sewer," she told the court in October.
In his ruling, Hoar acknowledged "ongoing issues" with facilities he said "appear to be showing their age."
An image of apparent mold, left, and maggot, right, specimens collected by Mandy Conte in a Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility shower
"In short, the shower room is far from a luxury spa; indeed, it is neither designed nor maintained to do much more than meet the most basic needs of human cleanliness," he wrote. "And with 'sewer flies' appearing on a persistent basis, one might fairly question whether the showers always meet even that fundamental purpose."
But, the judge continued, there was no evidence that the situation was "anything more than episodically unpleasant," nor that it posed a risk to the health or safety of inmates. "In short, like an outdoor privy, the shower room may not be a place where one would choose to linger, but it appears to serve its most basic function," he wrote.
Hoar found that the state had taken reasonable steps to address some the problems cited in Conte's suit and argued that while the court could force the department to do its job, it could not tell the department how to do its job.
Through a spokesperson, the Department of Corrections declined to comment.
Built in the early 1970s, Chittenden Regional is one of the oldest facilities in the state prison system. In 2012, community leaders issued a report decrying its conditions and documenting the presence of "worms and sewer flies in the shower drains" of the facility. More recently, criminal justice reform groups and state officials have argued that Chittenden Regional should be closed.
In an interview Friday, Conte called the ruling "upsetting" and "frustrating." She said that, though the state had sent in maintenance workers on the week of the trial, conditions in the shower room remained poor. "We still have sewer flies," she said. "I haven't seen any of the maggots, but there are still sewer flies."
Conte expressed little optimism that the department would take her complaints seriously unless forced to do so. "They're never going to get fixed unless they're mandated to fix them," she said.
Correction, December 21, 2020: An earlier version of this story misspelled Judge Hoar's name in one instance.