A superior court judge heard arguments on April 21 in Windham County about whether the court should consider a detainee’s medical vulnerability to COVID-19 and the increased risk of infection behind bars when setting bail pre-trial. The case was brought by defendant Frank Sanville and has been consolidated with those brought by other defendants.
Testimony by inmates and experts who spoke for the defense highlighted the risks inherent to the prison environment as well as weaknesses in Vermont’s prisons when it comes to inmate health. The state also brought its first witness, and will bring more on Wednesday.
Judge John Treadwell presided in the courtroom in a cloth mask. He instructed the attorneys present – also masked – to stay seated before him for the sake of the video conference, to which witnesses and additional counsel dialed in.
During testimony, Vermont’s former medical director for Vermont's Department Corrections, Delores “Dr. Dee” Burroughs-Biron, was critical of the ability of current prison medical personnel to care for inmates sick with COVID-19. She described the 2019 death of an inmate who had a tumor obstructing his ability to breathe. She said she had reviewed the case and video of the man’s decline in the infirmary of the prison in Newport, Vermont.
“There was no appearance from looking at the videos that they were clinically capable of taking care of the gentleman in the manner that was necessary for the emergency that was evolving at that time,” she said, and noted that staff did not take him to an emergency room when they should have. “It raised a concern as to how this will be carried out in the current crisis — respiratory distress being a huge part of what the COVID pandemic, and deaths during the COVID pandemic, have been about,” she said, adding respiratory distress comes on suddenly for many COVID-19 patients.
Prisoners' Rights Office attorney Emily Tredeau pushed back against objections about relevance from Windham County State’s Attorney David Gartenstein. “If the nursing staff wasn’t competent to deal with someone in respiratory distress four months ago, I don’t know why they would be competent to do so now. I think the illustration of the response will illustrate a lack competence,” she said.
At the end of the day, Steven Fisher, the Medical Director for Centurion of Vermont, the firm contracted to provide medical services in Vermont prisons, spoke to the safety of the facility. “From what I’ve seen,” he said, the Department of Corrections has “complied with or exceeded the guidelines” offered by the Vermont Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He also described many of the Department’s protocols, including the practice of quarantining new inmates for 14 days before integrating them into the prison population.
Testimony from inmates revealed apparent shortcomings in prison cleaning practices.
One inmate who said he was on "chemo meds,” described being moved into a cell recently vacated by another inmate who had tested positive to COVID-19. He said the cell didn't appear to have been cleaned.
"It was dirty, you could see coffee stains on the floor, dust bunnies, you could just tell it was a dirty room," he said. He later also tested positive for COVID-19, and was transferred to the “surge unit” in St. Johnsbury.
Monday’s testimony also offered a window into life inside the “surge unit”, where more than thirty inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 are isolated. Two witnesses who testified separately described coughing sounds emanating from nearby cells. One mentioned seeing a breathing machine in the dayroom, attached to a tube going into a cell. He told attorneys he was monitored by medical personnel 3 or 4 times a day.
Another witness isolated at the St. Johnsbury “surge” unit complained he had been able to shower only twice in two weeks, and said there was little to do other than color with crayons – unless you could afford subscriptions on a state-issued tablet. “Tablets are great if you have access to money,” he said, but video and gaming subscriptions can be cost prohibitive.