“Culture Change” at DOC is a Moral Imperative

More evidence that the long-awaited “culture change” at the Vermont Department of Corrections is still purely conceptual: A new study shows that the Southern State Correctional Facility at Springfield is a hellhole for inmates and staff alike.

It’s bad. Really, really bad. It’s not only an administrative and regulatory failure, it’s a moral failure. It reflects badly on anyone who’s had anything to do with our prison system in recent times: DOC officials, successive governors, union leadership, and the legislators with oversight responsibility. Anyone else? The Judiciary? Prosecutors?

Abigail Crocker, co-founder of the Justice Research Initiative, found many of the study’s results “alarming.” I think that’s an understatement.

One of those findings: 37% of the prison population, and 30% of prison staff, have had suicidal ideations.

So. In a place that’s supposed to be preparing inmates for productive re-entry into society, more than one-third of them are in despair or painfully close to it.

Well, you might say, of course people serving hard time might feel bad. But then you have to explain that 30% figure among staff, which indicates that the prison is just about as horrible for the workers as for the inmates.

Not that this is anything new. The JRI did the same study one year earlier, and the numbers were almost as bad as they are now.

Yep, we’re going the wrong way down a very dark road.

The VTDigger story about this includes some stunningly bland comments from responsible officials. Many of them professed to be unsurprised. Many sought to deflect blame on other parties or on the past.

Corrections Commissioner Nicholas Deml said he was “disappointed” by the results. He could have added “appalled,” “disgusted,” or “makes me want to puke,” but sure, let’s go with “disappointed.”

He rightly points out that these problems go back years. This is time for the customary reminder that DOC has historically been a very inbred place, with Corrections lifers rising through the ranks from prison staff to administration — and with one commissioner after another replaced by their deputy. Deml’s an outsider, so we might have some hope that things will change.

They’d better. The Springfield prison is a stain on our reputation and our conscience. We ought to be outraged about it. So should Deml. So should Phil Scott. So should members of the relevant House and Senate committtees.

So should the Vermont State Employees Association.

VSEA executive director Steve Howard blames the Scott administration for failing to meet “the magnitude of the challenge.” I might ask Mr. Howard if that’s also true of the union. Just looking at the bare facts, one has to conclude that no one has been effectively representing the interests of prison staffers.

It’s a vicious cycle. The prison is a terrible place to work, so of course they have trouble hiring and retaining staff, so of course jobs go unfilled, which of course ratchets up the stress on those who remain. There are supposed to be 150 people working at the prison, but there are 45 vacancies. The remaining 105 work harder and harder with no end in sight.

Which is not to ignore the impact on the inmates — the people we have put behind bars for our own protection and therefore have assumed an obligation to care properly for them.

And if you think better care would cost too much or would amount to coddling criminals, just imagine how this jacks up the cost of our justice system. A place like Springfield is a breeding ground for repeat offenders. We’d be much better off giving inmates a hand up and a way out instead of grinding the souls out of them.

Disappointment, concern, and blame transference won’t cut it. Nor will promises of change. This study should shock us to our core and provide all the motivation we need to take serious, concerted, and immediate action.

Will it? Or are we okay with feeding inmates and staff into the wood chipper?

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