Hard Time: Vermont Hasn't Lost a Single Prisoner to COVID-19. But at What Cost? | Crime | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Hard Time: Vermont Hasn't Lost a Single Prisoner to COVID-19. But at What Cost?

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Published March 23, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated April 5, 2022 at 4:57 p.m.


Inmates at Northwest State Correctional Facility - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Inmates at Northwest State Correctional Facility

Before Newport police took Michael Cornell to prison, they brought him to the hospital. The 33-year-old was suspected of stealing $1,184 from a computer repair store and robbing a hotel clerk of $168. Cornell was unemployed at the time, on probation for a domestic assault and, he told police, in need of mental help.

Cornell didn't remember breaking into the computer store, but he acknowledged buying 15 lorazepam, a prescription anxiety medication that can cause memory loss, earlier the same night in January 2021. The hospital developed a safety plan for Cornell because he was homicidal and suicidal, according to police records. Following his release, the cops arrested and lodged him at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport. A judge would order Cornell to be held without bail.

It was an inauspicious time to be confined inside Vermont's largest prison. Pandemic precautions meant that Cornell's two young children, ages 4 and 7, couldn't visit. The chow hall had been mothballed, so prisoners were forced to eat meals inside their cells, which double as bathrooms and are roughly the size of one. Basketball was banned, and classes were canceled or held over the phone. An overstretched corps of correctional officers tried to maintain calm among units of men who felt increasingly cooped up.

That was on good days. On bad days, when COVID-19 was in the air, the prison went on full lockdown, which meant that prisoners were confined to their cells for up to 23 hours and 45 minutes per day.

At Northern State, one of six prisons in Vermont, there have been a lot of bad days during the past year. A few weeks after Cornell arrived in February 2021, a massive outbreak infected 179 prisoners and kept them locked down for nearly two straight months. Another outbreak, in August, infected 40 people, prompting another lockdown. Then another in November. And fresh infections last month. More lockdown.

During one of those periods, Cornell wrote to Betsy Trucott, the mother of his two children. Cornell told Trucott he was reading books to pass the time while trying to chart a better course for his life.

Michael Cornell letter - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Michael Cornell letter

"I still feel ashamed everyday because of my actions, but I'm also trying not to be too hard on myself so that way I'm not too depressed to make the changes I need to," he wrote in an undated, handwritten letter that Trucott shared with Seven Days. "I wish they had classes to take but fucking covid has stopped everything."

Cornell did not live to endure the most recent outbreak, in February. He died on New Year's Day at age 34, during his 11th month of detention before trial, while housed in a special quarantine cell following an outside medical appointment. The circumstances are still under investigation, but this month the state medical examiner ruled his death an accidental overdose.

The Vermont Department of Corrections remains the only state prison system in the country where the coronavirus has not killed anyone. But Vermont has achieved this distinction through protective measures that shut down most of the rehabilitative aspects of incarceration and intensified the punitive ones, including unprecedented amounts of time confined to cells. The precautions have not prevented outbreaks or relentless lockdown cycles, even after booster shots became available. Some prisoners have spent as much as half of the last four months under full lockdown, a Seven Days analysis found. 


A chart showing days spent in Full Lockdown at Vermont Prisons (November 11, 2021-March 11, 2022)
  • Lockdown information was compiled from the Vermont Department of Corrections’ daily summaries, which were created on 75 days during the 121-day time frame. For the remaining 46 days, Seven Days analyzed contextual information about lockdown status, outbreak status and positive COVID-19 test dates to infer whether a facility was likely on lockdown or not during each day. Instances where lockdown status could not be inferred are labeled “undetermined.” In some cases, facility lockdowns were limited to one building or unit within a complex; those instances are counted as “modified” operations in this analysis. Lockdown status is accurate as of 6:30 a.m. on days when department data is available. Total lockdown days should be considered approximate.

The conditions faced by roughly 1,300 Vermont prisoners and many of the 1,000 corrections workers during COVID-19 are difficult for anyone on the outside to comprehend, though few probably spend much time trying. The discomfiting reality is that, even as many other institutions have dropped most onerous precautions — nursing homes have allowed visitors for more than a year, for example — Vermont prisons have remained sealed off to the loved ones of the incarcerated. 

Meanwhile, the pandemic has worsened a critical shortage of correctional officers and interrupted nascent efforts aimed at reforming the long-troubled department, which is now on its third commissioner since 2020. Earlier this year, the situation got so bad at two of the men's prisons that the department took the extraordinary step of locking down inmates — not to protect them from COVID-19, but because too few correctional officers were available to safely manage their movement.

Last October, Gov. Phil Scott appointed Nicholas Deml, a former Central Intelligence Agency official and Capitol Hill aide, as the department's new leader, replacing Jim Baker, who stepped in as interim commissioner in 2020 in the wake of a sexual misconduct scandal at the women's prison that Seven Days exposed just before the pandemic hit. The 34-year-old Deml, who has no prior experience in corrections, is now charged with addressing the system's woeful workforce shortage and reforming its toxic culture.

First, he's trying to turn the page on the two-year-long COVID-19 crisis. This month, the department quietly enacted a phased plan that could allow the prisons to resume a semblance of normal operations in the weeks ahead. Each prison will be able to offer in-person family visits, programs, unrestricted recreation and normal dining hall operations, as long as staff and inmates go several weeks without a cluster of uncontained infections.

"I don't want anybody to succumb to this illness," Deml said. "But as we look to the future, I think we also need to weigh the mental and emotional toll — and physical toll, frankly, in some instances — that this has taken on people."




Locked in

Bunks at Northwest State Correctional Facility - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Bunks at Northwest State Correctional Facility

During the last two weeks of February, COVID-19 swept through Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, which meant that Matthew Hathaway watched a lot of TV.

Hathaway, 38, takes his television seriously. He recently threatened a hunger strike, he claimed, to get correctional officers to move him from a cell where the TV didn't get his preferred channels.

On weeknights, right after watching "Jeopardy!," Hathaway would call his fiancée using his tablet computer. All Vermont inmates receive tablets through a for-profit contractor, although watching movies or listening to music on it costs money. Emails, too, cost 25 cents each. It's sort of like being locked down with a hotel minibar.

For weeks on end, Hathaway and his tablet were confined to a room that measures eight cinder blocks long by five and a half cinder blocks wide, furnished with a small desk, a twin bed, the TV, some shelves and a toilet. He got only 15 minutes outside the cell each day, generally to use the shower. "If you want to know what it's like to be locked down, lock yourself in your bathroom and stay there for a month," he said.

Lockdowns are the prisons' bluntest COVID-19 safety tool, used to stem outbreaks once testing or contact tracing reveals a widespread exposure. The outbreaks aren't prisoners' fault. The virus generally spreads through staff, who, after work, leave the sterile environment of prison for the unknowns of the outside world — then return the next day. By contrast, any time prisoners enter the facility, as a new arrival or after an outside medical appointment, they are sent straight to the quarantine unit — often confined to the same cells designed for solitary confinement — for two weeks.

Many prisoners are wary of the health risks posed by COVID-19, and 73 percent are vaccinated, slightly more than the 72 percent of facility staff who got their shots. Nearly 700 prisoners have been infected with the virus in Vermont prisons at some point over the last two years, some more than once. Another 185 infections have occurred among Vermont inmates kept at a private prison in Tutwiler, Miss. Of those, only four cases led to hospitalizations. Hathaway is vaccinated but said he didn't see the point in getting a booster shot. He's more concerned about the terms of his confinement.

"I've had basically every right that I have as an inmate violated in the name of COVID," Hathaway said.

Corrections officials can't say how many days each incarcerated person has spent under full lockdown — the department doesn't track it. But the available records suggest that between November 11, 2021, and March 11, 2022, Vermont's prisons were locked down nearly one-third of the time, on average. Pairs of inmates were generally locked into cramped concrete cells around the clock and allowed out for just a few minutes to shower. The frequency of these lockdowns varied by location, from 23 days at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility to 67 at Northern State.

Brielle Barker - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Brielle Barker

Prisoners have found their own ways to cope. Brielle Barker landed back in prison in the summer of 2020 after she was picked up on a probation violation for a new criminal charge that was later dropped. Barker, who is trans, was taken to Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans. But she petitioned corrections for a transfer to Chittenden Regional, Vermont's only prison for women. Barker stayed there until her release last November.

Inside Chittenden Regional, Barker said, she found ways to keep herself occupied. Yoga and writing workshops were canceled, but she taught herself to crochet, created a series of paintings and advocated for changes to how corrections treats prisoners who are trans.

Barker sometimes got frustrated with corrections officers but said she believed that the department was "trying really hard" to keep COVID-19 at bay. She felt slighted by the reusable microfiber masks that prisoners have been required to wear, which look like camp towels with ear loops and aren't as protective as the KN95s that staff members receive.

When she needed a respite, Barker flipped the mask over her eyes to block out the light. The isolation felt never-ending at times, but she said the pandemic restrictions were more tolerable once she was able to live openly in the women's prison.

"The hardest part was being locked up inside myself and then inside this cage on top of it," she said. "That just wasn't the case once I was in Chittenden, and I was able to be myself."

After 22 days, Hathaway's latest lockdown stint at Southern State ended at 8 a.m. on March 10. The news meant that he could spend several hours each day mingling in his unit's common area, called a dayroom. The 50 or so men in the unit could play cards or use the microwave, but gym time remained limited, and the prison's dining hall was still out of commission.

Hathaway began his morning, he said by phone later that day, by resuming his ritual of walking laps around the dayroom. It's 43 laps to a mile, a figure Hathaway calculated by using printer paper as a ruler to measure the circumference of the room.

As Hathaway described his mathematical accomplishment, a correctional officer wheeled a tray of refried beans, corn, a quesadilla-like entrée and a banana to his cell. Hathaway said he wasn't planning to eat, though he wasn't on another hunger strike. He just wants to lose some weight.




Missing visits

Michael Cornell with one of his children - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Michael Cornell with one of his children

Cornell, the inmate who fatally overdosed, had never been imprisoned before his detention last year at Northern State, according to Trucott. It seemed to prompt serious self-reflection.

"He really wanted to try to dig deeper in terms of his own behaviors and psychology," Trucott said.

By last June, Cornell had developed a daily workout regimen and was in "good spirits," a former cellmate recalled in a letter to Seven Days. Motivating Cornell was his desire to be reunited with his kids, whom he couldn't see while locked up. 

"I am told by some of his former roommates that he was always talking about them," Trucott said. "That was his big hope."

Among state prison systems during the pandemic, Vermont was one of just four that had yet to allow general family visits in prisons by the time Omicron hit, according to a database maintained by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news site that focuses on the U.S. criminal justice system. The women's prison at Chittenden Regional was an exception.

Unlike the men's prisons, the women's facility hosts a dedicated program to help children stay connected with their incarcerated mother. Kids-A-Part, operated by the Burlington nonprofit Lund, has for years facilitated one-on-one visits and large group events that help children interact with their mothers in a more communal setting.

Kids-A-Part office inside Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Kids-A-Part office inside Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility

Those visits stopped in March 2020, and it wasn't until September 2021 that kids were allowed back, on a limited basis, program coordinator Jess Kell said. Except for lockdown periods, mothers and children can again meet one-on-one for a couple of hours each week in Kell's homey office, appointed with a rocking chair, quilts, art supplies and a basket of My Little Pony action figures.

The meetups are still tricky to arrange, with the uncertainty of COVID-19 an additional barrier for caregivers, who bring kids when school schedules and long travel times allow. Kell said the reunions have been moving to witness and sometimes bear the evidence of 18 months of separation.

At one of the first, Kell recalled a child who "looked at their mom and said, 'I didn't see you the whole time I was 13 years old.'"

Behind bars at Northern State, Cornell also appears to have struggled. He told Trucott he couldn't get mental health treatment because of COVID-19, and he had trouble navigating the close quarters with cellmates. Cornell was also surrounded by drugs. One of the first things he told Trucott by phone, she remembered, was that "all anybody cares about in here is bupe," referring to the medication-assisted therapy for opioid addiction that Vermont law requires prisons to provide.

Cornell had returned from an appointment at the county opioid recovery clinic the day he died, according to Trucott. Northern State medical staff found him just before noon in a cell used to quarantine arriving inmates and began CPR. He was taken to North Country Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

A medical examiner's review of drugs in Cornell's system detected an array of medications, including the opioid treatment methadone, antidepressants and a prescription sedative. Not all of them had been prescribed to him.

"We're dealing with it the best we can," Trucott said of Cornell's death, "but it's an injustice."

Cornell wasn't the first prisoner to die in one of Vermont's COVID-19 quarantine units. In December 2020, a 36-year-old man at Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury hanged himself with a bedsheet four days after being detained on a burglary charge. Another man attempted suicide at Northern State that same year.

It's not clear yet whether lapses at the prison contributed to Cornell's fatal overdose. (Deml, the commissioner, declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.) But prisoners' rights advocates have been especially concerned about how the pressures of the pandemic are affecting people with substance-use disorders.

Those who were incarcerated during the pandemic seem to be at an elevated risk to misuse, said Ashley Messier, who founded the prison abolitionist organization Women's Justice & Freedom Initiative after she served prison time at Chittenden Regional. Yet she contends that Vermont has not made adequate investments in programs that help prisoners prepare for their release and to reintegrate once they're out.

"People who struggled with substance-use disorder and mental health have been hit hard by the pandemic. Then pile on having been incarcerated and completely isolated," she said. "Imagine how that compounds the issues."




Overtime

Mycheala Crossett, LNA - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Mycheala Crossett, LNA

Early in the pandemic, the Department of Corrections created an emergency policy that required employees from anywhere in the agency to work inside a prison if needed. The fear was that the virus could sweep through prisons, like nursing homes, with scores of staff out sick.

To Georgie Stapleton, a 62-year-old probation officer in the Barre office, the chance that she'd be called in seemed remote. She wasn't even instructed to take a refresher training to prepare her for such an assignment.

Then, on a Friday in January, the order came. She would need to work a 12-hour shift the next day inside a facility that was on full lockdown. Stapleton panicked. "I'm not security minded. I don't think like that," she said. "I'm a therapist."

She called her manager, who, Stapleton said, told her she'd be disciplined if she refused the assignment. Luckily, someone else volunteered, she said. But Stapleton was stunned that her department was conscripting employees she felt were ill-equipped to work as correctional officers.

The episode is one symptom of a public agency run ragged. Corrections, the second-largest department in state government, with 1,048 positions, has recorded more than 450 COVID-19 infections among its employees. Overtime hours soared as the department struggled to attract people willing and able to work in an increasingly intimidating environment.

And those already working there were heading for the exits: Between July 2020 and July 2021, nearly half of all entry-level correctional officers quit, Department of Human Resources data show. The wave of departures was significantly larger than the pre-pandemic turnover rate of 30 percent.

Chad Richardson, a booking officer at Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans, ostensibly works eight hours a day, Tuesday through Saturday. During the worst stretches of the pandemic, however, his shifts lengthened to 12 or 16 hours. He might work 2 a.m. to 2 p.m., or 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., "and then you're back the next morning," he explained to a Seven Days reporter during a guided prison tour earlier this month.

They aren't easy hours, either. The last two years have seen near-constant adjustments to safety protocols. Officers have attempted to police social distancing inside buildings that have been designed to confine.

For those who run programs for prisoners, demand is up and the ability to provide them is hampered. Correctional educator Ritalea Sweeny, for instance, typically would teach high school courses in an on-site classroom. Instead, she's had to teach by phone. Explaining mathematics that way, she said, has been "really difficult."

Not everything about prison work has gotten harder. With fewer prisoners who don't move around as much, there haven't been as many interactions to oversee. The added overtime brings welcome extra cash. But the long hours and stress have strained many officers' personal lives.

The state workers' union and Gov. Scott cut a deal last year to award over $6 million in recruitment and retention bonuses of up to $2,500 for corrections staff. The program was set to expire this month, but the union and the department extended a slightly different version of it through June. Scott signed a bill earlier this month that includes funds for retention bonuses in the upcoming fiscal year.

Deml, the new commissioner, said the department will reevaluate the strategies as June approaches.

"We know that staff really put it all on the line over the last couple of years, and they deserve just compensation for that," he said.

The labor problems in corrections are not a pandemic phenomenon; they've just gotten worse. An annual state Department of Human Resources survey last year found that just 10 percent of corrections employees believed that department morale was "good," down from 22 percent in 2019.

The situation makes the prisons less safe. There's a shared perception that the black market among inmates for medications, a problem known as drug diversion, has gotten worse. The illicit trade includes doses from Vermont's medication-assisted therapy program, which has unwittingly turned the state into a "major drug supplier" behind bars, said Steve Howard, president of the Vermont State Employees' Association, the union that includes corrections workers. The problem, in his view, is that corrections doesn't have enough staff members on the ground to properly administer the medicine. His members view it as a "complete disaster," Howard said.

Deml said COVID-19 protocols that keep staff distanced from prisoners, not a lack of staff, have made stamping out the practice more difficult. Hathaway, from the vantage point of his cell, said he thinks correctional officers have simply turned a blind eye.

The drugs' relaxing effects, he said, make their jobs easier.




Opening up

A guard at Northwest State Correctional Facility - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • A guard at Northwest State Correctional Facility

"There's no crying in corrections" was something of a catchphrase when Cindy Lack started her career 33 years ago. Now she's trying to change that.

A probation officer, Lack heads a 26-member group of employees who offer peer support to coworkers who need a listening ear.

The stress that correctional officers face can be hard for others to understand, Lack said. Most people don't know what it's like to cut down a man from a bedsheet, or how hundreds of hours inside a prison change the way you move through the outside world. Department veterans get it.

"We need to take care of our staff, or we're not going to have any," Lack said. "We need to take care of what's left."

The essentially volunteer peer support team has existed for years. But during the pandemic, the department made it so that employees no longer needed to seek out help — now it's offered to them. Lack's team had fewer than 800 interactions with employees in 2019, she said. The total shot up to 3,200 in 2020 and more than 3,500 last year.

"Folks have found it helpful to talk about what's going on," she said.

VSEA's Howard said the working conditions endured by corrections employees during the pandemic — and their accomplishments — have been underappreciated. Many of his members feel like they've been fighting a hidden battle, one that even state leaders haven't acknowledged. The governor stopped by the Vermont Correctional Academy last August, his office said, but Howard thinks Scott should do more.

"This is the only corrections department in America that didn't have a death due to COVID," he said. "And the governor hasn't shown up in a single facility to say, 'Thank you.'"

In St. Albans, staff at Northwest State who spoke to Seven Days were finding some reasons for optimism. Their facility had spent fewer days on lockdown during the recent Omicron wave than the other men's prisons. Sweeny, the teacher, was recently able to begin one-on-one tutoring sessions in person, and Richardson said required overtime hours have begun to decrease.

Matt Engels - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Matt Engels

Matt Engels, a shift supervisor who oversees recruitment at the St. Albans prison, keeps a whiteboard on a wall in his office that's otherwise papered with posters of the Green Bay Packers and classic rock bands. The whiteboard showed a flowchart of new hires, including two who were joining up and two more who were slated for interviews.

In the bottom corner, Engels, a 14-year corrections veteran, keeps a running tally of how many officers he's been able to hire and retain since last June. It's up to 22.

"We're not where we want to be, but we're getting where we need to be," he said.

Still, he's cautious about the months ahead, particularly as the department drops more COVID-19 restrictions. Many on Engels' team started working in corrections during the pandemic. They've never had to manage a full chow hall or a visitation room.

For them, the last two years are just the way things are.




Correcting course

Nicholas Deml - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Nicholas Deml

No department in state government has more vacant positions than corrections. According to the new commissioner, the 181 openings as of late February are concentrated among correctional officers and other roles inside the prisons. Nearly a quarter of these 500-plus "security" positions, as they're dubbed, are unfilled.

The number of officers working in corrections today remains lower than it was a year ago, Deml conceded in an interview last week. The department has relied on changes to its staffing patterns — for instance, by moving to 12-hour shifts in some prisons to reduce total shift changes — to prevent more staffing-induced lockdowns such as the ones that happened in recent months. Since then, he said, the recruitment and retention efforts have improved. 

Creating a more stable workforce is Deml's unequivocal priority in the months ahead. 

"We just came out of a really traumatic event — or, we're trying to come out of a very traumatic event — in COVID," he said. "And so I think it's a great time for the department to really connect and respect our staff on a human level and make really important investments in them as people."

Deml strikes a softer tone than his predecessor, interim commissioner Baker, who was widely respected and also, as a state official put it, "one tough bastard." Trained as a lawyer, Deml won't say much about his nearly eight years working in classified operations for the CIA.

But he speaks frankly about why he pursued the corrections post. The commissioner didn't want to live part time in Washington, D.C.; he wanted his life to be in Vermont, where his wife lived in their house with their infant daughter. And he saw in corrections an avenue to "really make an impact on human life."

Deml's ideas for turning around the department revolve around making it a more humane place. He's focused on staff wellness, improving professional development opportunities and making sure promotions are based on merit, not an "old boys' network." 

"I want to offer that type of — just the joy and pleasure and self-worth that somebody gets out of having a career they can be really proud of," he said. 

What Deml hasn't emphasized, so far, is funding. To VSEA's Howard, that's a problem. For months, the union has said it will take a substantial taxpayer investment, on the order of $15 million to $20 million per year, to address the chronic staffing problems inside corrections. 

Deml doesn't rule out targeted proposals for more resources but said he believes that the $174 million budget the governor endorsed for fiscal year 2023 is enough for corrections leaders to make "really meaningful change for our staff."

There's no doubt that shedding pandemic restrictions inside the prisons will also help. It's not without risks, though. If another COVID-19 wave brought fresh outbreaks in the prisons, they would still move into lockdown, and prisoners would again shoulder the burden. Deml said the department is looking to use narrower, focused lockdowns when possible, such as when only one or two units have active cases.

That's because the most important thing corrections can do right now, Deml said, is try to restore the things that make prison a little more bearable.