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.
You know it’s serious when a report from State Auditor Doug Hoffer (a) gets a lot of media attention and (b) prompts a chastened response from state officialdom.
That’s just what happened Monday with the release of Hoffer’s performance audit of the Department of Corrections’ prisoner grievance process. A process that was so lacking that Hoffer couldn’t even conduct a full audit because of poor recordkeeping. A process so lacking that to even call it a “process” is an indignity against the English language.
And no, I’m not exaggerating. Hoffer found that DOC records do not “have reliable, basic information to determine the number, type, status or outcome of prisoner grievances.”
Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
But wait, there’s more! Inaccurate data, missing records, no submission or response dates, inadequate training for staffers who use the system, and no DOC administrator specifically tasked with managing the grievance process.
It’s a great system if your goal is to avoid accountability.
More happy tidings concerning the much-ballyhooed “culture change” in the Vermont Department of Corrections in a VTDigger story about how state prisons are being reopened to visitors. The answer is slowly and incompletely, with strings attached. Unlike, say, the Scott administration’s policy toward the reopening of Vermont otherwise, which is to immediately remove all restraints.
The story also contains other tidbits that underscore the administration’s broader attitude toward inmates: that they don’t really deserve to be treated with dignity. There’s an undercurrent of “Inmates did something wrong and must be punished.” You see this over and over again in administration policy.
The DOC refused to prioritize inmates for vaccination, despite multiple outbreaks of Covid-19 inside our prisons. (Human Services Secretary made an absolute hash out of trying to explain that policy.) It put Covid-positive inmates into solitary confinement, which meant cruelly restrictive conditions normally reserved for the worst miscreants.
Now, the DOC is taking a go-slow approach to allowing visitors. “We want to make sure everybody is safe when we do this,” said Al Cormier, DOC director of operations. Gee, too bad that wasn’t the policy when inmates were made to wait their turn for vaccination even though they were demonstrably at high risk, and they could have been easily served because they’re all gathered in a handful of locations.
People occasionally ask me how I keep coming up with ideas. My answer is, there are always far more ideas than I can actually cover. This week, there were a few that I just couldn’t get to, but they seem worthy of note in short form. So, the first-ever Veepie Awards. Possibly a continuing series, but no promises. Or threats. The envelope, please…
Most Desperate Pushback Against Negative News Coverage. The winner is the Vermont Department of Corrections, which was on the bad end of a New York Times article outlining the toll of its Covid policies. In order to prevent outbreaks (at least a couple halppened anyway), DOC locked away exposed inmates in solitary confinement, the most extreme form of incarceration.
For weeks at a time… inmates were locked in 8½-by-10-foot cells in near-total isolation. They ate meals a few feet from their toilets, had no visitors, and spent as little as 10 minutes a day outside cells.
The strategy made the Vermont prison system one of the safest for contracting Covid, which is a dispiritingly low bar. But the cost, as the Times put it, has taken “a heavy toll on many inmates’ mental health, and driven some to psychological despair.”
And at least one to suicide. But hey, no Covid deaths!
At least one of Vermont’s Superior Court judges could benefit from a stint in the hoosegow — purely as an educational experience. But maybe a couple days behind bars should be a requirement for the job. After all, they send plenty of people to prison; shouldn’t they have first-hand experience of the “correctional” experience?
The judge in question is Samuel Hoar, who just dismissed a lawsuit by inmate Mandy Conte over unsanitary conditions in Vermont’s women’s prison. Hoar’s opinion could have been delivered by the unghosted version of Ebenezer Scrooge. In it, he acknowledged the disgusting conditions in the prison’s shower facilities, but decided to do nothing about it.
Sounds like he needs a long rinse in the showers that, according to the inmate who filed suit, “reeked of human waste and were infested with sewer flies, maggots and mold.”
Before we go on, I should mention that Hoar is the same judge who almost lost his seat in 2019 over allegations of “sexist, degrading and condescending behavior toward women.” The charges put an extra twist in what’s usually a pro forma reappointment process, but in the end Hoar was given another six years on the bench.
And this is the dude who rejected very valid complaints from a female inmate. I smell a pig.
After the jump: A deeper dive into Hoar’s terrible ruling.