UVM study paints grim picture at Springfield, Vt., prison

  • Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger VTDigger file photograph

Published: 1/28/2022 5:11:49 AM
Modified: 1/28/2022 5:10:32 AM

Staff and incarcerated people at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield have experienced high rates of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and suicidal thoughts, according to a study released Thursday by the University of Vermont.

Many of the prison’s staff and incarcerated population believe the facility lacks services to promote prisoners’ rehabilitation and reentry into society, the study found, as well as the staffing levels necessary to create a safe and healthy environment.

“These findings are disturbing. There’s absolutely no way around it,” Nicholas Deml, commissioner of the state Department of Corrections, said at a news conference Thursday. “Now, let’s go out there and try to start fixing some of these problems.”

The study, conducted last June by UVM’s Justice Research Initiative, the Department of Corrections and the Washington-based nonprofit Urban Institute, is based on a survey taken by more than 70% of the facility’s incarcerated individuals and staff.

Close to 90% of staff and 80% of incarcerated individuals said staff behavior influences the way incarcerated individuals behave in the prison. But at the same time, close to 80% of staff disagreed that their colleagues consistently enforce the facility’s rules.

Moreover, nearly every staff member said incarcerated individuals “are more likely to engage in negative behavior” when they don’t have enough to do, yet some 85% disagreed that the prison offers enough opportunities for incarcerated individuals to stay busy.

These issues were also reflected in the answers of incarcerated people: About 80% disagreed that they had access to activities promoting their well-being and growth, while 85% said “there are a lot of times when there is nothing productive (or meaningful) for me to do.”

In general, about 80% of respondents who were incarcerated disagreed that the programs available in the facility gave them the necessary skills to be successful upon release.

Abigail Crocker, a UVM researcher working on the project, said COVID-19 has reduced the number of activities available to incarcerated individuals, but the lack of things to do also came up during researchers’ initial visit to the facility before the pandemic.

“We did hear a lot about idle time and lack of activities,” she said, “and the impact that has not only on the folks incarcerated in the facility, but also the impact idle time has on the staff.”

Negative impacts on the prison as a result of staffing issues were also a common thread throughout the survey results.

Most staff respondents said they took pride in their job, but nearly every one of them said the prison doesn’t have enough staff to meet its current needs, and that frequent staff turnover and mandatory overtime were problems.

About 90% of staff also disagreed that the Department of Corrections understands what it’s like to work in the facility, and as many said that when changes are made at the facility, they don’t assess the impact to see how the changes worked.

These issues also were reflected among the prison’s incarcerated population, of which about 75% said staff members don’t have the resources to help them address their problems. And, 80% disagreed that there are enough staff to help them prepare for release.

What’s more, nearly every staff respondent disagreed that staff morale was high, and agreed that their co-workers show signs of stress.

About half of prison staff said they’ve developed anxiety or depression since starting to work in corrections; roughly 40% said they’ve developed post-traumatic stress disorder; and about a quarter said they’ve developed alcohol or substance use disorder.

Among incarcerated people, 70% said they had developed anxiety since entering prison, 65% said they developed depression and 55% said they developed post-traumatic stress.

The survey also found that 36% of incarcerated individuals, and 10% of prison staff, said they had considered taking their own lives at some point in the past year.

Moreover, 65% of incarcerated people said they don’t get the medical treatment they need when they need it, and some 70% don’t get the mental health care they need.

In response to a question Thursday, Deml said the Department of Corrections has sometimes “gotten away” from focusing on the needs of individual staff members.

Overall, he said the agency needs to provide more training and professional development opportunities and to ensure staff have access to the health care and mental health care they need. He also said the survey shows a lack of communication within the state agency, both up and down the chain of command.

“That’s an area where the department needs to improve,” he said of communication, “making sure people understand what we are doing, and why we are doing it.”

Deml said the department plans to work with UVM researchers and Urban Institute staff to figure out ways to solve the issues brought up by incarcerated individuals.

The project, which began in 2020 and is slated to continue through March 2024, is part of the Urban Institute’s Prison Research and Innovation Initiative. The nonprofit also is conducting similar studies at prisons in four other states and plans to compare the findings from all of the facilities it’s studying.

Deml added that while the study focused on a facility in Springfield, he thinks the results of the project could inform reform efforts in other communities as well.

“I think that many of the challenges that they highlighted are felt in our facilities across the state,” he said.

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