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Mentally Ill Prisoners Desegregated

Published: 11/21/2016 10:50:01 PM
Modified: 11/21/2016 10:50:04 PM

Springfield, Vt. — A controversial unit for prisoners with mental illness at Vermont’s second-largest correctional facility is not currently being used.

Ed Adams, acting superintendent at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, confirmed on Friday that Alpha unit has been largely vacant since mid-September. Though rights advocates welcomed the decreased use of the unit, they are calling on the state to adopt permanent policy changes to discontinue the use of segregation on prisoners with mental illness.

One prisoner was temporarily held in Alpha since the unit was vacated, but that person had more freedom of movement than traditional in the unit — including time in the yard and interactions with others.

Alpha is a 10-bed mental health stabilization unit where prisoners with mental illness are held alone in cells for up to 23 hours a day. The unit, the only one of its kind in the state, has been the target of criticism from the Vermont Human Rights Commission, Disability Rights Vermont and others who say the practice is discriminatory and dangerous for prisoners with mental illness.

In one case that came before the Human Rights Commission, a young man with mental illness was held in segregation for 2½ years.

Adams said Southern State has reduced use of the unit to “virtually zero” through a combination of factors.

The prison’s mental health staff and security personnel have been better able to treat prisoners in Bravo unit, another designated mental health unit that allows for freedom of movement similar to that in general population units, he said. The prison has been working closely with the Department of Mental Health.

“All of the current research shows that the long-term use of segregation never has positive benefits,” Adams said.

So far, he said, the change in practice has produced positive results.

“This is not a new pioneering unique effort, but this is seeing where the entire country is going,” Adams said. “What the research is telling us is this is the way good business is conducted in a correctional facility.”

Adams has been acting as the head of the Springfield prison since August, when Southern State Superintendent Mark Potanas went on administrative leave. Adams is the superintendent at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, the state’s only women’s prison. He said he drew on his previous experience to manage Southern State.

The prison has also reduced use of the general population solitary confinement unit, Foxtrot, since Adams took over. He said currently just six prisoners are in that unit, which has capacity for 48.

A.J. Ruben, a lawyer with Disability Rights Vermont, said the decreased use of Alpha is positive. However, he said the group is concerned that there has not been a policy revision formalizing the change of practice.

“We think there’s a high risk that the department will return to the bad old days of putting people who are very sick in situations that can only make them sicker,” Ruben said.

Ruben said Disability Rights Vermont would support a requirement that no prisoner with mental illness be held in segregation without certification from a mental health provider that segregation would not exacerbate the person’s illness.

Corrections Commissioner Lisa Menard said the department is continuing to look at the use of segregation. She noted that many factors go into making decisions about using segregation, including the safety of staff and prisoners.

“It would be difficult to say that within our currently available physical space and staff resources that it would never be used. However, I think duration and conditions of confinement are areas that we are already showing marked change and welcome continued conversations with Disability Rights Vermont and other advocacy groups,” Menard said.

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