Bill Schubart, a retired businessman, is a regular columnist for VTDigger.
Our prisons are a petri dish for COVID-19. Vermont has over 1,700 people in its six correctional facilities and another 300 locked away in federal prisons. Some 7,800 Vermonters are under the supervision of the Vermont Department of Corrections, and 6,000 children have immediate family in the system. Some small number of those incarcerated may indeed need to be kept separate from the population at large. But many of those imprisoned are either detainees awaiting trial, are past their release dates with no plan for reentry, were incarcerated when “just lock ’em up” was politically popular, or are imprisoned for crimes of addiction, mental illness or poverty — shoplifting or kiting checks.
On March 13, in response to COVID-19, the DOC suspended visitation at all six correctional facilities until March 27, putting in place an offer of one free video visitation a week. Most inmate communication services are contracted to businesses who charge prisoners to use them and, as such, create their own injustices within the system for inmates who can’t afford them.
At a time when gatherings of people are either discouraged, prohibited or illegal, and places where people congregate are being shuttered, we have some 2,000 Vermonters in forced social proximity.
Vermont has eliminated the death penalty as an official criminal justice policy. Ironically though, as I mentioned in an earlier VTDigger column, the number of people killed by police in Vermont has escalated in the last decade. Now we face the possibility that any number of inmates will contract, spread and perhaps die from COVID-19, which would add yet another bizarre extension to our death penalty history if we do not act immediately.
Prison architecture is designed for maximum human compression and minimum cost. Most of our facilities are old and have extensive deferred maintenance needs, especially systems related to plumbing and hygiene, further endangering inmate health.
Although Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith has stated that no prisoners will be released, there is every reason to believe Commissioner James Baker will act within his capacity to minimize the health risks to those under his watch: inmates, parolees, correctional staff, and those in his administration. But these are extraordinary times, demanding extraordinary measures, and must be supported by all Vermonters.
We have in place a network of Vermonters who understand and work within the criminal justice system: Circles of Support and Accountability, the 20 regional Community Justice Centers, Dismas House, state’s attorneys and public defenders and those working to create new pathways to reentry for offenders such as the ACLU-VT, Center for Crime Victim Services, and Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform. All should partner with the medical testing community and marshal forces to create tribunals to test and decarcerate as many offenders as is safe, either returning them to their families and communities with a commitment to self-quarantine and social distancing like the rest of us, or finding safe places for them to live until the infection curve begins to flatten.
Experts in pandemic management have emphasized that we must act together to reduce the infection rate. Just because men and women are behind bars does not mean they and all those who work with them are not at grave risk for contracting and spreading the infection. Like border walls, prison bars are ineffective against a migrating virus.
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It should be possible to reduce the prison population by half using citizen and criminal justice tribunals to triage detainees who are in jail because they can’t afford bail, are sick and/or elderly (compassionate release), who have rebuilt their lives in prison, or have been reincarcerated for technical reasons like lack of housing. We could isolate the remaining prisoners from one another in cell placement and in congregant spaces to reduce community-acquired infections.
This is the right policy for all in institutional living, not just our prisons where it can become a death sentence. We’ve already emptied our classrooms and college dorms to enforce social distancing and thus reduce the contagion and save lives. Are incarcerated Vermonters any different?
We have decided not to kill as a matter of policy. We have crossed one frontier, the death penalty, but now we must push forward and ensure that our policies and practices do not sentence more Vermonters to death.
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