Is Vermont's prison pandemic playbook worth copying?
Known, active coronavirus infections in Vermont’s corrections system are down nearly 1,000 percent over the last forty days – from 48 inmates and staff to just five.
But, those in charge of the response said they can’t let their guard down. "This has not gone away, we haven’t beat it yet," said Executive Facilities Director Al Cormier.
Meanwhile, Vermont leaders like Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith are touting their strategy as a model for states across the country.
Interim Corrections Commissioner James Baker said he's proud of his staff at every level -- crediting his leadership team for staying on top of each new development, and planning for the worst.
“There were moments when they put their coffee cups down and said, ‘oh no’,” he said, "as the science develops, sometimes we’re changing policy twice a day.”
All that work has one purpose, to protect the health of corrections officers and prisoners like Kevin Beaupre.
"It's beautiful being out,” he said in a recent interview from his new apartment in Winooski.
He's re-adjusting to freedom -- released in late-April from Northern State Correctional facility -- after spending years behind bars for assault and armed robbery.
“Prison life is kind of different than life out here,” he said when asked about the general potential for harm when locked up with fellow offenders, "but when the coronavirus hit, it was totally different, it was even more scary.”
By late-March, Beaupre had already served his minimum sentence. He asked the Vermont Department of Corrections -- and courts -- to let him out early given his age makes him more vulnerable than most to the coronavirus.
He said he's not sure whether he would still be in prison if not for the pandemic.
Beaupre said the last month of his sentence felt the longest; containing the contagion meant 23-hours-a-day in his cell. But, he said he appreciates steps the D.O.C. took to protect health. “I think they did an incredible job,” he said.
Most notably, Vermont:
- Moved a surge of positive inmates to an isolated wing of one facility – and put staff there up in a hotel to prevent them from bringing the virus home.
- Is releasing more offenders – like Beaupre -- who reached their minimum sentence and complete required programming.
- Tested everyone in facilities with at least on case, and plans to cover the rest soon.
"Those are exactly the kind of things that we’re recommending,” said Liesl Hagan, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hagan leads a task force developing guidance for handling coronavirus behind bars. The agency recently made a visit to Vermont, and requested data from states across the country.
But, Hagan said broad guidelines need to be tailored to fit local circumstances, “If you’ve been to one prison or one jail, you’ve been to one prison or one jail.”
Megan Quattlebaum with the Council of State Governments, said strong or weak results aren't necessarily a reflection of how well a state has responded to the crisis. "Some of them have the ability to do things that others don’t," she said.
Quattlebaum said Vermont was in a relatively good position to respond. Substantial prison overcrowding and facility design elsewhere can make it nearly impossible to follow best practices.
States are dealing with different levels of infection within their communities outside prison walls. There's also not a uniform approach to testing, or how results are reported. All that, Quattlebaum said, makes drawing comparisons problematic.
The Vermont Department of Correction's response isn’t without its critics.
While the prison population dropped nearly 20 percent since February, Falko Schilling with the Vermont A.C.L.U said too many prisoners remain behind bars unnecessarily.
"The reductions we’ve seen throughout this crisis show to us, what we’ve been saying for years," he said, "that we can safely reduce the number of people we incarcerate in this state and we can do this going forward."
Many prisoners who have served their minimum sentence aren’t being released. The holdup: they need to complete pre-release programming – programming which hasn’t been available during the pandemic.
Schilling said the D.O.C. should – on a case-by-case basis -- also consider letting out those who haven’t qualified for parole yet especially those with underlying health concerns.
Courts recently denied one high-profile appeal for just that, demonstrating the tough ethical questions posed by the virus.
Frank Sanville of South Royalton allegedly shot his estranged wife in March 2018 while out on medical furlough from a domestic violence sentence.
Late this April, the 73-year-old argued he shouldn't face a potential coronavirus death sentence before he goes to trial for allegedly killing his wife. Prosecutors argued he poses too great a risk to be released, and the judge ultimately denied Sanville's bail request.
We asked Baker whether he and his team have had to decide between what's best for inmate's health and what's best for the security of Vermonters at any point during the pandemic. “I think we do that every day,” he said without hesitation, "we feel that pressure every day."
Schilling did say he’s encouraged by steps the D.O.C. has taken to address concerns they’ve raised, including the department’s recent decision to expand testing.
Just about everyone we spoke with for this story agreed on another point. What's currently working in Vermont, or anywhere else, may not in the not-so-distant future.
"These are not forever solutions,” said Quattlebaum with the Council of State Governments.
There are two primary pressure points for the response. Prisoners can’t stay on permanent lockdown and emergency funds will eventually run dry.
With state economies and budgets strained by coronavirus fallout, prisons everywhere will need to find ways to protect the public and inmate health while simultaneously cutting costs.
"We have spent a lot of money that’s probably not in our budget and we did that because we needed to do it," said Baker. He added that he and his team knows they can't simply rely on the legislature or federal government to endlessly accept cost increases.
Quattlebaum, Schilling, and Baker all said continuing to drive down prison population numbers will need to be a piece of the long-term solution in Vermont and elsewhere. Fewer prisoners would bring down costs, and in theory, facilitate the lifting of lockdowns by making social distancing easier.
The largely-shared, broad vision for doing that includes:
- more sentences that result in supervision rather than time behind bars
- new approaches to decreasing the likelihood an offender violates conditions of release or re-offends
- expanding opportunities for lprisoners to shorten their sentences through good behavior and demonstrating personal growth.
D.O.C. administrators said the current response is draining. "This is overwhelming for everybody and people are tired," said Cormier.
But, they said it will continue until better options are available.
That mental and physical toll isn't limited to staff. "We've got inmates that have been on a modified lock-down for almost two months now... with zero issues in our facilities," Cormier noted, "it speaks volumes to the inmate population, and it speaks volumes to the staff."
Asked about what he would do differently in hindsight, Baker said they could have gotten even more of a headstart. He said that's likely the only way they could have stockpiled enough hand sanitizer and protective equipment to be fully-covered when everyone ran out in mid-March.
Baker made it clear though, that the challenge thus far, and yet to come is unlike any he's encountered before in his decades of public service in law enforcement
"The only thing I remember being involved with that’s even close to this was the infamous Phish concert in Coventry," Baker said.
At the time in 2004, the Vermont band billed August show as their final act. Poor weather, undersized event infrastructure, and a massive overflow crowd made safety logistics a nightmare.
But Baker said, the pandemic leaves his team and the rest of the state in a much bigger jam. "We knew there was an end-game there," he said, "here, we don’t know what the endgame is going to be."