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‘It’s very difficult to control’: Many Vermont inmates released so that those who remain can be spread out

  • Dismas House Assistant House Director Robert Burdette uses an infrared thermometer to take the temperature of resident Jonathan Alvarez at the residence for former prisoners transitioning out of the corrections system in Hartford Village, Vt., as he arrives home after work Wednesday, March 25, 2020. The house is no longer admitting visitors or volunteers and residents are having their temperatures taken daily and upon returning home if they leave the premises. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jeff Backus, house director at Dismas House in Hartford Village, Vt., said he expects to receive more requests for placements at the facility from state prisons Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Vermont prisons are trying to reduce their populations to combat the potential spread of COVID-19 by releasing more prisoners on furlough and probation, but Dismas House has stated it will not take on more residents that its maximum of 12 at the house. “I have a handful that are ready to move on,” he said of the potential for space to open up. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/26/2020 9:06:01 PM
Modified: 3/26/2020 9:05:53 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the country, prison officials are quickly looking at ways to prevent inmates from catching the infectious virus.

And for local facilities, that means more than just hand sanitizers and cleaning.

“The goal is to reduce our (inmate) population so we can start spreading out the remaining population,” said Jim Baker, commissioner for the Vermont Department of Corrections, which has over 1,500 inmates — including nearly 250 housed in Mississippi — and six facilities throughout Vermont including Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield.

The virus, which has at least 260 confirmed cases in the Twin States, has not been confirmed in any inmates in either state. A staff member at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, Vt., recently tested positive for the virus but did not have access to any inmates in the facility, Baker said.

Still, he’s concerned that if the virus somehow reaches the inmate population, it could spread quickly within the prison.

“It’s very difficult to control,” Baker said. As a result, he said, he’s started by looking at which inmates can be let out on furlough and who can be released on probation. In the past week, the Vermont DOC has released almost 100 inmates from its facilities, and over 200 since late February, Baker said.

“We are fast filling any bed we have,” said Jan-Roberta Tarjan, executive director of Dismas of Vermont, which has homes around the state — including a 12-bed house in Hartford — that provide services for furloughed inmates.

“I know (the DOC is) trying to get people out as quickly as they can,” she said.

In New Hampshire, prison officials are still considering how they might begin reducing their 2,470-person population at their six facilities.

“We are exploring with members of the judiciary and prosecuting and defense attorneys methods to examine opportunities for at-home confinement,” and other types of discretional releases, Laura Montenegro, a spokesperson for the New Hampshire Department of Corrections, said in an email Thursday.

While some of the focus has been on releasing prisoners, Vermont’s overall prison population has reduced largely because fewer inmates are being incarcerated in the first place, according to Baker.

“One of the things we started doing early on was looking at the population and limiting the number of people coming in,” Baker said, adding that the inmate population has dropped from 1,730 in December to 1,517 in late March.

Last week, the Vermont Supreme Court ordered courts throughout the state to suspend most hearings and jury trials. New Hampshire courts also stopped almost all in-person hearings and jury trials.

“The courts are closed. No one is getting sentenced,” said Orange County State’s Attorney Will Porter, adding that the only cases going forward are “emergencies” while many of the nonviolent cases that don’t pose a risk to public safety have been postponed until June.

The same is true in Windsor County, where State’s Attorney Ward Goodenough said his office and defense attorneys are looking to “reduce unnecessary court hearings.”

“We are working with the Department of Corrections to ensure that only cases that pose imminent risks to the public are being added to our incarcerated population over the coming weeks,” Goodenough said in an email Tuesday.

Baker said the DOC is using other preventive measures like implementing more regular cleaning — up to three times a day at some facilities — and temporarily banning visitors. He said there are about five COVID-19 tests available at each facility.

Falko Schilling, advocacy director for the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been working closely with the DOC, said that in the coming weeks the department may look more closely at alternatives to incarceration for people who are at high risk of contracting the virus.

However, some prisoner-rights advocates in Vermont have concerns about the inmates held in the Mississippi prison, Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility.

Eric Daley, who grew up in Springfield, Vt., and is serving time for involuntary manslaughter, is one of those inmates. He said in a phone interview Wednesday that the prison has done a “decent job” of trying to make sure the prison staff isn’t infecting inmates.

However, he and fellow inmates are worried because last week, the U.S. Marshals Service brought in about 80 immigration detainees to share a building with most of Vermont’s out-of state inmates.

Emily Trudeau, the supervising attorney for the Vermont Prisoners Rights Office, said the Mississippi facility is required to follow Vermont DOC’s standard of medical care.

She said the facility’s decision to bring in new detainees is cause for concern.

“We have received no detailed information about what if any screening procedures TCCF is using to prevent COVID-19 virus from entering the facility, whether through infected inmates or infected staff,” she wrote in an email Wednesday.

Staff writer Jim Kenyon contributed to this report.

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.




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