Crime and Justice

In-person prison visitations set to resume, but not everyone is happy with the rollout

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Northwest State Correctional Facility
Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans. Photo by Sawyer Loftus/VTDigger

While Gov. Phil Scott lifted statewide Covid-19 restrictions in Vermont this week, the state Department of Corrections is taking a slower approach.

Scott announced Monday he was lifting the restrictions because 80% of eligible Vermonters had been vaccinated. 

The corrections department is also easing up on some of its restrictions but not all the way back to where they were before the coronavirus struck in March 2020.

“We want to make sure everybody is safe when we do this,” Al Cormier, chief of operations for the corrections department, said Wednesday. “We’re taking it slow. We’re going to have a methodical approach to how we open up.”

That includes requiring that incarcerated Vermonters be vaccinated before they are permitted in-person visits, which have not been allowed since the pandemic began 15 months ago, Cormier said.

Stacy Hubbell, whose husband, Travis Hubbell, is incarcerated at Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans, said Wednesday that the corrections department is not lifting restrictions far or fast enough.

She said her husband is not vaccinated and does not plan on getting vaccinated. As a result, Hubbell said, she won’t be able to visit him.

“Personally, I think that’s bull. It’s forcing inmates to get the vaccination if they want to have visitors,” Hubbell said of the upcoming policy. “That means no matter what, until they change that directive, I will no longer be able to visit my husband.”

Through the pandemic, she has visited with her husband via video. One free 25-minute video visit is allowed per week. Additional video visits require a fee, she said.

She said the quality of the video is quite poor.

“You can’t see his facial features, and the same goes with us — if we move too much, he can’t see us. It pixelates,” Hubbell said. “It’s a tiny tablet, so we’re essentially quite small.”

Hubbell said she expects her husband to file a grievance over the visitation policy. 

Cormier said the corrections department worked with the state Department of Health in developing the guidelines for visitations, trying to find the best way to do it.  

The corrections department aims to allow in-person visits starting July 1, he said, and hopes to permit people to come into the facility for programming and volunteer services, such as parenting classes and religious services, beginning Aug. 1.

The corrections department will allow vaccinated and unvaccinated visitors to come into a facility for in-person visits, Cormier said. Those who are not vaccinated against Covid-19 will be required to wear a mask, he said. 

Corrections staff will ask visitors upon entry about their vaccination status, Cormier said. 

He said Wednesday he did not have exact figures on how many incarcerated individuals are vaccinated but estimated it at 70%. On Wednesday, the total population in Vermont prisons was 1,275 individuals, including 154 people housed out-of-state in a Mississippi prison, according to the department’s website. 

In early May, the corrections department reported 34% of people in prison had refused vaccination; 810 had received the shot and 421 had declined. That meant 66% of incarcerated individuals had been vaccinated at that time.  

Cormier said the department has been encouraging people in prison to get vaccinated.

First, he said, the department surveyed those who refused to get vaccinated, asking why. 

Some incarcerated Vermonters have told VTDigger that they refused vaccination over a distrust of the corrections department and a need for more information than had been provided. 

Last week, Cormier said, the department released a video — featuring James Baker, interim corrections commissioner; Mark Levine, Vermont’s health commissioner; and Vermont Public Defender Matthew Valerio — answering questions and concerns that had been raised.

Any incarcerated person who changes their mind will have access to the vaccine, Cormier said.

Once programs and volunteer services resume on a target date of Aug. 1, Cormier said, those who are unvaccinated will be required to wear masks.

Inside the facility, he said, incarcerated individuals and staff must continue to wear masks. About 80% of the corrections officers have been vaccinated, according to Cormier and a corrections status report distributed last month. 

Cormier said new protocols that he hopes will go into effect next week will no longer require vaccinated incarcerated individuals and staff to wear masks.

Tim Burgess, a Vermont resident who is with U.S. Prison Watch, advocates for incarcerated individuals and their families. He said Wednesday allowing visitation for some people in prison and not others was a bad idea.  

“I think it should be universal. Either you can visit or you can’t visit,” he said Wednesday. “The potential there is causing an uproar among the inmates.”

He said he encourages all incarcerated individuals to get vaccinated. As for the corrections department’s pace in lifting restrictions, Burgess said he understands the need not to move too fast.

“Corrections is dealing with people in very close quarters,” he said. “It can be a tougher situation with corrections than with a town.” 

Valerio, Vermont’s public defender — whose department includes the state prisoners’ rights office — said Wednesday he’s glad visitations will soon be allowed and other restrictions are slowly being lifted. 

He said he understands the need for the corrections department to take a little time to lift its restrictions.

“It’s not like flipping a switch,” he said. 

Valerio said he thinks it’s appropriate at this time to limit in-person visitation to vaccinated incarcerated individuals to prevent a Covid-19 outbreak in a prison.

“Those are the kind of facilities that can cause huge problems,” he said. He said he’s been urging incarcerated individuals to get vaccinated for a long time: “This is one of those things I’ve been pretty clear on.”

He also said it’s important for people in prison to have connections outside the prison walls, and isolation can take a toll on a person’s mental health.

During the pandemic, one person died by suicide while quarantining at Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury, and another attempted suicide quarantined at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport. 

Valerio said Wednesday that vaccination has been key in helping to resolve a lot of the impacts that Covid-19 has had on the state’s correctional system. 

“To be honest, vaccination was the way out,” he said. “That is the way you solve your problems with isolation, programming and visitation, and all that.”

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