Prisons are like cruise ships or nursing homes: they are among the riskiest places to be during this pandemic.
Today, about 350 Vermont inmates are past their minimum sentences and could be released. And while Vermont prison officials frequently mention that the department has reduced its population by nearly 300 people in response to the coronavirus, an analysis of DOC policy and data suggests these reductions reflect changes in who is going to prison, rather than who is getting out.
In 2016, when Terry Parson was 36 and living in Barton, the state convicted him of selling methamphetamine and conspiring to manufacture it. He was sentenced to a minimum of two years in prison.
Today, Parson is one of 350 inmates who could be released — either on parole or on furlough, two programs which allow inmates to finish their sentences in the community, so long as they abide by a strict set of rules.
“I could be released at any time,” he said.
Parson said being in prison right now is scary. Nearly 40 of his fellow inmates at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in Franklin County have tested positive for COVID-19.
“To think with this virus spreading the way it is,” he said, the state’s decision to keep him behind bars “just blows me away.”
Parson and others in his position have told VPR they should be released because of COVID-19. As one inmate put it, risking exposure to a pandemic wasn’t part of his plea deal.
But Vermont DOC is only reviewing cases for inmates who are 65 or over, and thus deemed “vulnerable” to COVID-19.
Commissioner Jim Baker says these elderly inmates are being considered for release on a case-by-case basis.
“But in some of those cases, the nature of the crime is pretty serious,” he said.
According to VPR’s analysis, DOC has released two elderly inmates who were past their minimums since early March. Seventeen more are currently behind bars.
Baker said DOC is not doing any kind of pandemic-related review for inmates past their minimums who are under 65, like Terry Parson.
However, he added, “There are circumstances right now where people are over their minimum, and some of that revolves around a lack of programming, and we are in the process right now of evaluating that.”
Baker is talking about inmates like Terry Lizotte, whose minimum sentence came and went last fall. To get released, Lizotte says, he needs to complete a 9-month program designed to reduce his risk of reoffending — a program which has been suspended because of coronavirus.
“If they're not offering it, why punish us for something that's out of our reach and out of our control?” he said. Lizotte, who is being held at the prison in Newport, has severe asthma and fears he will suffer from complications if he contracts COVID-19.
Commissioner Baker said DOC is now looking for ways for inmates to complete programming by video, using tablets in their cells.
But Falko Schilling says that’s not enough. Schilling is advocacy director for the ACLU of Vermont, and although Vermont has reduced its prison population by nearly 17% since early March, he said it hasn’t done enough to release those who are already incarcerated.
Falko attributes the prison population decline primarily to a reduction in new bookings, both in how law enforcement and the courts handle new charges, and how community corrections officers respond to furlough and parole violations which don’t constitute new crimes.
“A number of the people who are incarcerated on technical violations probably wouldn't be there if those violations occurred today, because the department is being more stringent about who they're reincarcerating,” Falko said. “There needs be more done to look at the people who are currently incarcerated who could be safely released.”