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State employees’ union files safety complaint over hot conditions at Southern State Correctional Facility

A concrete wall with a fence on top on it.
Vermont Department of Corrections
Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield is one of four state prisons that isn’t fully air conditioned. The Legislature set money aside to get the facility updated, but that work could take up to two years to complete.

A workplace safety complaint filed last month says multiple employees at Southern State Correctional Facility have raised concerns about heat in the facility, and at least one staffer was hospitalized for heat stroke.

The Vermont State Employees' Association, which represents prison staffers, filed a complaint with the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration (VOSHA) on June 6. VTDigger first reported the union’s complaint.

“This is something that needs to be addressed immediately,” said VSEA Executive Director Steve Howard in an interview on Tuesday. “We can't move at the traditional pace of state government … people are getting sick now.”

The complaint, obtained by Vermont Public, detailed an incident on May 23 where an employee at Southern State Correctional Facility was hospitalized for heat stroke. The employee struggled to keep his temperature at a “reasonable level” while working in the infirmary. The infirmary is the only unit in the prison with an air conditioner unit, but it was broken, according to the complaint.

The employee stopped sweating at one point during his shift, a sign of heat exhaustion, and then started to lose his vision. The employee took a break, and then had no memory of what happened until he woke up in the hospital, the complaint says.

“This is something that needs to be addressed immediately. We can't move at the traditional pace of state government … people are getting sick now.”
Steve Howard, Vermont State Employees' Association

Multiple employees have raised concerns about heat in the facility, and have asked the Department of Corrections to install air conditioners in all of the prison’s units, according to the complaint.

DOC Chief of Operations Al Cormier told members of the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee on Tuesday the A/C unit in the infirmary has been fixed, but that the bigger issue is that only two state prisons, Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility and Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility, are fully air conditioned.

Superintendents at the four prisons without full air conditioning are buying fans, cooling vests and misting stations for staff. One facility even bought a slushie machine for its employees, Cormier said.

“They're cinderblock and concrete and steel,” Cormier said. “They're hot buildings with very minimal ventilation.”

It’ll cost $20 million to update the air conditioning at all the state prisons. This year, the Legislature put $5 million aside for that work, mostly at Southern State Correctional Facility, though that project won’t be completed until 2026 or 2027, Cormier said.

According to a legislative study, it will cost $3 million to update the air conditioning system at Southern State Correctional Facility.

The Springfield facility is at the top of DOC’s list for updates, because it houses the state’s largest prison infirmary, and incarcerates people who tend to be older and have higher health needs and mental health issues.

A 2023 study found that extreme heat, which is expected to occur more frequently due to climate change, is particularly deadly for people in prisons. Researchers found the Northeast saw the largest increase in heat related deaths in prisons between 2001 and 2019.

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Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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