Vermont Prisoner, 29, Found Dead in Quarantine Cell | Prisons | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont Prisoner, 29, Found Dead in Quarantine Cell

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Published April 4, 2022 at 9:04 p.m.


An empty cell in a Vermont prison - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • An empty cell in a Vermont prison
Updated on April 5, 2022.

Another Vermont prisoner has died inside a COVID-19 quarantine cell, the Department of Corrections said Monday.

Dustin Dunkling, 29, of St. Albans, appeared to have died by suicide at Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury on Sunday night, according to Vermont State Police. The state medical examiner will conduct an autopsy to determine Dunkling's cause of death.

Dunkling was imprisoned March 24 on a probation violation, police said. After arriving, Dunkling was kept alone in a cell for two weeks, as part of the Department of Corrections' pandemic protocols. The precaution, more typically used as a punishment for misbehavior, is one of numerous steps Vermont prisons have taken to limit COVID-19 outbreaks.



The virus has not killed any Vermont prisoners, but several have died while in so-called quarantine cells, including 36-year-old Michael Dupont, who killed himself at the St. Johnsbury prison days after being detained in December 2020.
Another man attempted suicide at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport that year. More recently, Michael Cornell died January 1 of an accidental overdose at Northern State while in quarantine following an outside medical appointment.

Seven Days reported Cornell's death in a March 23 cover story about the ongoing effects of the pandemic in Vermont prisons, including continued outbreaks and severe restrictions for those who are incarcerated. Between November 2021 and March 2022, Vermont prisoners on average spent one-third of the time on full lockdown, meaning they were restricted to their cells for 23 hours and 45 minutes each day. In some instances, prisons were placed on full lockdown because the Department of Corrections was short staffed.

In a press release, the department said prison employees found Dunkling unresponsive around 9:30 p.m. on Sunday night. Staff attempted life-saving efforts, but Dunkling was later pronounced dead at the prison.

Staff are required to check on prisoners held in quarantine units every 15 minutes, per department policy.
Dunkling's death will be investigated by police, the department, and the Vermont Prisoners' Rights Office of the state public defender's office.

Corrections Commissioner Nicholas Deml said Dunkling's death is "a reminder of the human needs incumbent in our work."

“The pandemic’s toll on mental and emotional well-being is acutely apparent in our Department, where we see first-hand the impact the pandemic has had on both our staff and those in our care and custody," Deml said in a statement. "We will continue to focus our attention on the mental and emotional health needs of our incarcerated population and our staff as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and build toward our future.”

Corrections recently put in place a phased plan to ease COVID-19 restrictions. The latest version of the guidance, dated March 28, maintains the system of 14-day quarantine for new arrivals even in less-restrictive phases.

The department is now reviewing its intake quarantine protocol "in furtherance of its phased approach to reopen Vermont’s correctional facilities and to minimize the impact these protocols have on the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of those in the Department’s care and custody," the Monday release stated.

If you or a loved one are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for free, 24/7 support at 800-273-8255, or text VT to 741741.

Update, April 5, 2022: Due to erroneous information provided by the Vermont State Police, a previous version of this story contained incorrect pronouns for Dunkling, who identified as transgender female  when most recently booked into prison, according to the Department of Corrections.