How Are Vermont Prisons Handling COVID-19?
Parole officers doling out hand sanitizer. Inmates cooking for those in quarantine. At the Vermont Department of Corrections, it's all hands on deck.
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In the midst of this global pandemic, Vermont Public Radio’s newsroom has been following the Brave Little State tradition of inviting listener questions through our coronavirus survey. On March 5, we received an anonymous question:
What is the state’s plan for Vermont prisons? What will happen if staff [need] to quarantine?
Of course, March 5 was five weeks ago now, which, in coronavirus-time, feels more like five years. What was merely preparation when our question-asker wrote is now a full-fledged response from the corrections department. So we’re going to start in the present day, and work backwards.
Supervision to ... sanitizer
Five people are in a conference room, surrounded by hundreds of empty, plastic 12-ounce bottles.
It’s Wednesday, inside the brick Burlington Probation and Parole building. That’s where supervisor Glenn Boyde’s job usually entails managing probation officers, who supervise people convicted of low-level crimes (crimes that didn’t warrant prison sentences, like driving while intoxicated, driving without a license, simple assaults).
Standing across a table from Boyde is Maria Godleski. She oversees officers who work with higher-risk offenders convicted for things such as aggravated assault and multiple DUIs.
Today, Boyde and Godleski are doing something different. They’re pouring hand sanitizer from five-gallon buckets into smaller containers: 3,200 small bottles, plus 18 one-gallon jugs. The hand sanitizer comes from SILO Distillery in Windsor, which makes vodka and gin.
Some of the jugs will be delivered to Vermont’s prisons. The smaller bottles will go to state offices and employees.
“Usually my job is, I sit at a desk," Boyde says. "Not filling hand sanitizer."
The week before was "crazy," says Al Cormier, facilities executive for DOC. On Wednesday, April 8, the department announced a Vermont inmate had tested positive for COVID-19 for the first time. They immediately tested every inmate and employee inside the Northwest State Correctional Facility, in Franklin County, near Swanton.
Results came in the very next day. First, the total was 28 inmates — then 35 inmates — plus 17 staff members who came back positive for COVID-19.
“It's hard to describe, because we've been planning, and we've been planning,” Cormier says, “and nobody expected a surge like we had.”
DOC had just recently decided that if it needed to quarantine more than a handful of inmates, it would put them in an empty unit in the prison in St. Johnsbury. It had been hypothetical. Now it was real.
Quarantined in prison
The same day the test results came in, DOC transported 28 COVID-positive inmates from Franklin County to St. Johnsbury. The vehicles backed the inmates up to quarantine unit’s fire exit.
“They went right into the unit,” Cormier says. “They didn't even have to go through the admissions area or or the general population areas. It was all completely separated.”
In St. Johnsbury, each COVID-positive inmate has his own cinder block cell, with a toilet and a window looking out into the day room. Cormier says it looks like a normal prison day room, “other than staff in masks and glasses and goggles and Tyvek suits.”
(A note here: In photos provided by prison officials, staff appear to be wearing gowns, not Tyvek suits).
About 25 unquarantined men are still incarcerated at the St. Johnsbury prison, in a different unit. It’s their job to cook for sick inmates. They told me they don’t like that the same officers go between the two units. But Cormier says a rigorous process protects the inmates and the guards.
To get to the quarantine unit from the rest of the prison, he says, guards walk through a gym into a hallway, which he calls a “warm zone.” From there, they exit the building into a “large military-style tent,” where they put on their PPE, or personal protective gear, before going into the “hot zone,” or quarantine unit.
When they leave that unit, Cormier says, they go back to the tent to remove their gear.
“It's cleansed in bleach,” he says. “There's a washing station there. They can wash their hands.” Cormier says they then bleach the goggles, and put their mask in a paper bag to save for their next use. Then, he adds, they can spray their shoes down with bleach before going into the “cold” part of the facility.
Cormier says the St. Johnsbury guards have N95 masks, but are expected to reuse them five times in a row before they get a new one. According to the CDC, this practice increases risk but is acceptable during a shortage.
Moving the inmates to St. Johnsbury came together quickly. But Cormier says the department had been planning for coronavirus since February. That’s when they started asking visitors and new inmates about travel to places like China.
In early March, he says, supervisors were already gaming out worst-case scenarios around conference tables, posing questions to each other about how they would respond if a single inmate tested positive, versus 10.
Once officials started hearing about grocery stores running out of toilet paper, Cormier says, they realized there might be shortages. They started stockpiling food, cleaning fluid and medical supplies.
By mid-March, they canceled in-person visitation and started taking staff members’ temperatures. Then, on March 23, the first staff member tested positive at the prison in Newport.
A week later, a staffer in Franklin County tested positive, and this eventually escalated into the current outbreak at Northwest State.
An up-to-date table of COVID-19 cases in Vermont facilities:
What it's like for inmates
On March 24, Governor Scott signed the executive order telling everyone outside prison to stay home, and for those of us on the outside, everything was different. For people behind bars, little had changed.
My first phone call with Brian Rock was three days after Gov. Scott’s stay-at-home order went into effect. I’d already been working from home and social distancing for three weeks. But Rock, who’s incarcerated at Northwest State, was still playing basketball in the gym every day, and eating with others in the chow hall.
“We got 28 people per unit and they call three units at a time,” he told me. “My elbows touch two other people that I sit with, and there's somebody directly across the table from me.”
Rock said his unit’s hand sanitizer bottles were frequently empty and didn’t contain CDC-approved hand sanitizer made with alcohol.
At first, when I ask department commissioner Jim Baker about this, he said the inmates I was talking to must be confused:
“We have created an incredible supply line going to these facilities. I checked on that supply line twice a day personally,” he said.
After our our story ran, Baker acknowledged DOC is struggling to supply its facilities with alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Now, probation and parole officers in Burlington and Springfield are helping the department with its supply. (And, as soon as I asked Baker about the basketball, he had it canceled.)
Right now, the inmates at Northwest State, where the outbreak is, are on full lockdown: They only leave their cells to shower. Folks incarcerated at Vermont’s five other prisons are on modified lockdowns.
“We don’t leave the unit for absolutely anything, unless we go outside for rec,” says Terry Lizotte, who is incarcerated at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport. “Our meals are brought to us, we eat in our cells, our meds are brought to us.”
When Lizotte leaves his cell, he says he must wear a mask made out of bedsheets stapled to rubber bands.
Lizotte is past his minimum sentence and has severe asthma. He tells me he thinks he should be allowed to quarantine at home in New Hampshire, at his mom’s house. And the department has been releasing inmates. Since March 4, the Vermont prison population has gone down 15%, although advocates including the ACLU of Vermont think more inmates should be released promptly.
What it's like for staff
Our question-asker wanted to know what the state prisons were doing to prepare for coronavirus. But she or he also specifically asked about staffers: What would Vermont do if correctional officers were quarantined?
The truth is, officers are already in quarantine. Eighteen have tested positive. Others are out with symptoms, and some are home because their kids aren’t in school.
“We have a staffing plan in place,” says Al Cormier, the facilities executive. He adds that officers from the state’s probation and parole offices are already filling in across the state. These are the officers who would usually report to people like Glenn Boyde and Maria Godleski — when they aren’t pouring hand sanitizer into 12-ounce bottles.
If more officers are out sick than can be replaced by parole and probation officers, Cormier says, “we can bring in National Guard troops.” In fact, he tells me, National Guardsmen and women will soon be receiving training for that contingency.
I wanted to talk to correctional officers, but their union said everyone was busy working. Instead, Steve Howard, the union’s executive director agreed to an interview.
“I think the biggest concerns are really health and safety and the sort of, I would say, haphazard availability of personal protective equipment,” he says.
Howard wants more guards outside of the quarantine unit to have access to N95 masks and gowns. And, he says, there have been a couple other hangups along the way.
“We had a couple facilities where they were supposed to be checking the temperatures of anybody going into the facilities, and that wasn’t happening,” he says.
Yet Howard, a union executive whose job is to push back against department leadership, called Commissioner Jim Baker nothing less than “a breath of fresh air.”
“He has been really very responsive,” he says.
When he raises an issue with Baker, Howard says, Baker often makes things right. Like the temperature checks. When he told Baker his officers were afraid of bringing the virus home with them, the DOC reserved hotel rooms near each prison for guards to stay in, free of charge.
Baker hasn’t budged on one thing Howard and the union are agitating for: universal testing of every staffer and inmate in every prison. Presently, they won’t do that until someone inside has symptoms, gets tested, and comes up positive. So far, that has only happened at Northwest State, in Franklin County.
Nevertheless, the one thing Howard says he wants you to walk away from this story knowing is this:
“When people try to generalize about correctional officers,” he says, he hopes they remember that “throughout this crisis, these people walked away from their families and put their lives in danger once again to make sure that the community was safe.”
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This episode was produced by Emily Corwin, with editing from Mark Davis. The show’s creator and host is Angela Evancie. Our digital producer is Elodie Reed. We have engineering support from John Billingsley. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
VPR and Brave Little State have support for coverage of criminal justice issues from Ben & Jerry's.