Controversial Program Locks Down Drug-Addicted Female Inmates | Crime | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Crime

Controversial Program Locks Down Drug-Addicted Female Inmates


Published May 20, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.

Katie Corey-Counter - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Katie Corey-Counter

Ed Adams paused outside a locked door inside the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility and waited for a guard to buzz him in. "I don't usually bring tours in here," Adams said. "I get bombarded."

But the women in this secure unit within Vermont's sole women's prison hardly glanced up, let alone approached superintendent Adams with their grievances. Nearly half of the 23 were still confined to their cells, where they spend 18 hours each day. Two bleary-eyed women used the telephones mounted on a wall; one sat slumped on the floor with her knees drawn toward her chest, the phone cradled between her ear and shoulder.

At a metal table, a group of women in gray sweats played cards. A television high on the wall above them broadcast a History Channel program. A broad-shouldered corrections officer lingered behind a glass partition, observing the women in the housing unit known as "Foxtrot" — the radio code for the letter F.

Prison officials designated Foxtrot a "drug housing unit" in February 2014 in response to a problem the prison couldn't get under control: Four of every 10 women at CRCF were testing positive in random drug screens.

"In the old days, you'd use drugs, we'd find out you used drugs, and you'd go to segregation" — solitary confinement — said Adams. Women would spend a few days in the "hole," and then, by Adams' telling, rejoin the rest of the prison. 

Now they go to Foxtrot. "This is what women need — not sitting in a cell 23 hours a day," said the superintendent. 

The idea, in part, is to require women to take responsibility for their drug use. "Less segregation, more accountability," Adams said. The prison can't compel women to attend drug treatment services, but on Foxtrot, they're required to at least submit a referral to the nonprofit Phoenix House — which conducts group and one-on-one counseling sessions within the prison — before they're allowed to leave the unit. 

The experience is designed to be unpleasant. Adams tells a story about one woman — someone who six months ago he might have called "one of the most committed drug users in the facility" — who spent three or four months in Foxtrot. "She's made a 180-degree turn-around," he said. He remembers her telling him, "Boy, I hated Foxtrot. But it was the best thing you ever did for me."

The unit is also meant to remove the rest of the inmate population from temptation. By targeting the women believed to be using or circulating drugs and then containing them in one place, Adams hoped to bring drug use rates down throughout the entire prison.

He has, by 50 percent.

But not everyone is celebrating, including current and former inmates who have spent time in Foxtrot. Seven Days was not able to interact with prisoners while touring the facility but did receive letters from residents and interviewed women who previously were held there.

"Isolation, food deprivation, lack of programming or proper exercise are among the many issues surrounding Ed Adams' brilliant plan to 'contain the drug problems,'" one inmate, Amber Harmon, wrote in a letter to Seven Days. "Little does he know, they're everywhere."

'Drug Capital of Corrections'

  • James Buck

On any given day, between 140 and 160 women call CRCF home. The squat brick prison sits behind a tangle of barbed wire just off Swift Street in South Burlington.

Women represent a growing portion of Vermont's inmates; in 2014, nearly 30 percent of those coming into corrections for the first time were female — up 6 percent from a decade ago.

More often than not, the women who end up in jail come from backgrounds complicated by trauma, poverty and drug abuse. National data suggest that 70 to 80 percent of the incarcerated population has struggled with addiction. Erin Jacobsen, an attorney who leads a family law clinic once a month at CRCF, said it's the exception to the rule when a woman tells her that she's incarcerated for something other than drugs.

Women who come into the prison testing positive for drugs on urine analysis tests are sent directly to Foxtrot. The same goes for inmates who have been in jail a while. Despite the barbed-wire-topped fences surrounding the facility, drugs easily make their way inside. The drug of choice in all Vermont correctional facilities is buprenorphine, according to Adams, an opioid that can be prescribed both for pain relief and for the treatment of addiction. The drug can be delivered on something that looks like a Listerine breath strip — small, thin and easy to hide. It comes into the prison in any number of ways: liquefied and painted onto paper, which an inmate can then eat; painted over with Wite-Out on a letter; even dropped into the yard for pickup during outdoor recreation.

Some incoming — or returning — prisoners smuggle drugs into the facility hidden inside their vaginas, knowing they can make four or five times the street value by selling inside. A strip of Suboxone might sell for $100 in prison, five times the $20 street value, according to Michelle Wiltse, who credits a Suboxone prescription with keeping her opiate addiction at bay. The prison doesn't routinely perform cavity searches when inmates arrive; in Vermont, there has to be probable cause to resort to such invasive measures.

The women's prison has not only been unable to staunch the incoming flow of these drugs, it has posted the highest rates of drug use among all the facilities overseen by the Vermont Department of Corrections. That spurred Adams to action. "I don't want to be the drug capital of corrections," said the superintendent.

So he rolled out a number of changes. After initially allowing women to wear street clothes in the facility, DOC began providing uniforms, which reduce the number of places women can stash drugs, according to DOC commissioner Andy Pallito. The facility also reinstituted random searches and began searching women after they came in from the outdoor yard.

Prison officials also had to figure out how to treat those inmates found to be using drugs on the inside. As part of their crackdown effort, corrections officers started handing out more drug-related "DRs," or disciplinary reports. And they started sending women to Foxtrot.

It's not unlike the situation at transitional housing sites, said commissioner Pallito. If a resident uses drugs, he or she might be disqualified from the program.

"You've got to do something," said Pallito, noting that "in our world, there's no kicking users out of the facility." Foxtrot, he said, "allows us to target them as high need, but also protect the rest of the facility."

But are the needs of the drug-addicted women in Foxtrot being met? Far from it, according to current and former residents.

"They make it seem like they're doing it because they want to help us get better, treat our addiction and this and that," said Wiltse. "The reality is, they're trying to keep everyone, and all the drugs, in one spot."

Unusual Punishment?

Katie Corey-Counter, 31, went to jail in November 2013 for robbing a store, a crime she said was fueled by her drug addiction. She describes the experience as hitting rock bottom. When she was bailed out the following March, she went to rehab for almost 50 days — knowing all the while that she was likely heading back to jail, because she hadn't been sentenced.

When she was, she landed in Foxtrot.

"I was thrown into a unit, Suboxone everywhere, ripped off my meds," Corey-Counter recalled. "I would not have relapsed, I truly believe, if I was not put in that unit."

Others who have been there agreed that Foxtrot is a dangerously tempting environment for women who are trying to fight drug addiction. "All the drugs are down there," said Wiltse. "How do you expect someone to get clean with all these drugs around you? It doesn't make sense."

"Addiction is a disease," said Corey-Counter, "and it's not something that just goes away by shoving someone in a fucking room."

But drug treatment is decidedly not the primary purpose of Foxtrot. Inmates say they spend long portions of the day with nothing to do. Some who pursue treatment wait as long as two months for referrals to go through at Phoenix House, according to Corey-Counter. She recalls one drug counselor in that program telling her that Foxtrot was "built for pain."

Foxtrot prisoners can't mingle with others in the facility — which means they're not allowed to attend regular church services or Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. They're only allowed to go outside or to the gym once a week, rather than the daily periods afforded other inmates. They are limited to "no contact" visits with family and friends, often scheduled for midweek time slots when visitors can't make the trek to the prison.

While most prisoners can order snacks and additional food from the commissary to supplement prison meals, Foxtrot residents are limited to buying basic hygiene products. Several complained of going to bed hungry or losing significant amounts of weight.

"You starve to death in there," said Corey-Counter, who spent several months in Foxtrot last year before being released from prison in December.

"The only edible thing we can order are cough drops ... and the girls eat them because they are hungry, even though they usually get sick," wrote inmate Samantha Bushika in a letter to the Vermont Prisoners' Rights Office that she also forwarded to Seven Days.

Wiltse said she lost 15 pounds during her stay in Foxtrot in 2014 — a worrying amount for the slim 25-year-old.

Prison rights advocates are keeping a close eye on Foxtrot — as best they can. Suzi Wizowaty, who heads up Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, first heard about Foxtrot last year in letters from inmates. She's rankled by the very idea of the unit.

"It feels punitive," said Wizowaty, who, like other advocates, questioned the wisdom of making life even harder for women with drug addictions.

The Prisoners' Rights Office, meanwhile, is trying to assess the fundamental legality of the program. Of particular interest is whether Foxtrot constitutes "punishment." Currently, the unit is designated a "special management unit," but punishment — under DOC guidelines — would mean prison officials must follow some tenets of due process. For instance, prisoners are entitled to a hearing before heading to traditional "segregation."

Supervising attorney Seth Lipschutz said taking on the legality of this kind of unit is an uphill battle.

"There are a lot of things that are unfair, that are arguably unjust, that aren't nice, that aren't right. The issue is, whether it's unlawful," said Lipschutz. "The department has very broad discretion in fashioning its programs and treatment, and judges are loathe to interfere with that. You have to prove in cases like this, almost, that it's cruel and unusual punishment."

Others argue that Foxtrot isn't a black-and-white issue. That includes Rachel Jolly, director of women's programs at Vermont Works for Women, the contractor that provides job training within the facility. Jolly is also keenly aware that women inside Foxtrot have fewer opportunities for treatment, exercise, contact with family members and other prison programming.

But she's also seen improvements across the facility as a whole. She expressed sympathy for DOC, and described the department as caught between "a rock and a hard place." DOC isn't designed to treat drug addiction, she said, and to her mind Foxtrot is at least making a dent.

"It does seem to have at least contained the issue," Jolly said of the drug problem at CRCF, adding that she'd heard women from outside Foxtrot express relief that there wasn't as much contraband around to entice them.

Prescribed Doses

In the cramped medical offices at CRCF, three women sat in folding chairs wearing barber cloaks. Their pale and glum faces, seemingly disembodied, appeared to hover over the black robes.

Since last October, women such as these have been able to receive medically assisted treatment for addiction at the prison. So far, 71 women have received methadone or buprenorphine, the drugs used to manage addiction.

Previously, longtime drug counselor and social worker Stuart Friedman remembered, corrections officers brought inmates into the Burlington methadone clinic "in shackles." The image summed up, for him, the way society is still conflicted about how to think about substance abuse.

"The rhetoric is, 'This is an illness; this is a disease,'" said Friedman. "But in fact, we don't necessarily treat it like a disease."

On this day, women were receiving their prescribed doses of methadone or buprenorphine. Because these medications are also in high demand on the prison's black market, prison officials administer the doses under close surveillance. The capes prevent the patients from bringing their hands to their mouths. Adams explained that some women would hide their medication on the roofs of their mouths or inside their cheeks, in order to smuggle them back to their units. Others could hold the drugs in their throats, and cough them up later to sell.

Corrections officers now use a flashlight to check each patient's mouth and require every one to drink a cup of water before returning to their units. Even so, Adams and former inmates related stories of women regurgitating their medications in order to pass them along to others.

Trying to stay one step ahead of drug-addicted inmates isn't easy. But Adams' efforts are paying off — at least on paper. In the 12 months prior to converting Foxtrot to a drug-housing unit, 38 percent of women at CRCF tested positive for drug use on random tests — the worst rate among facilities overseen by the Vermont Department of Corrections. In the 12 months since Foxtrot started — from March 2014 to February of this year — positive results on the random drug tests fell to 16 percent, and the facility moved up two rankings.

As the superintendent toured the rest of the prison with Seven Days, women approached him in hallways outside of the Foxtrot unit. One expressed interest in a cosmetology course. A small group told him about a skunk in the yard. Again and again, though, unbidden, they brought up Foxtrot.

"I've been clean since Foxtrot," a gray-ponytailed woman said to Adams. "I feel good, actually, believe it or not. I feel OK." She continued down the corridor. When she'd disappeared around a corner, Adams told a reporter that, previously, she'd been what he considered a "long-termer" — someone who'd been using drugs for a long time.

Later in the tour, another inmate told the superintendent, "Thanks for getting me out of Foxtrot."

He replied, "You got yourself out."