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Vermont Inmates Report Inconsistent Access To Soap, Hand Sanitizer

A sign that says Chittenden Regional Correctional Factility, with the building in the background
Meg Malone
VPR File
According to inmates' reports, Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility for women appears to be taking the coronavirus more seriously than other facilities for men.

According to conversations with Vermont inmates, many still have irregular access to soap or cleaning supplies, must eat elbow-to-elbow in mess halls, and — until VPR reported this story — were still playing full-contact basketball.

During a recent legislative committee hearing, Department of Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker told lawmakers that each Vermont prison had been stocked with the alcohol-based hand sanitizer recommended by the Centers for Disease Control to kill the coronavirus.

But five inmates and the Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform executive director told VPR that inmates still lack consistent access to the sanitizer, and even soap and hand towels.

This week, an inmate in Newport, two in Swanton and one in St. Johnsbury said their units had not received alcohol-based hand sanitizer at all, or that it was only briefly available.

"We have no hand sanitizer." — Justin Morale

“We have no hand sanitizer,” said Justin Morale, calling from the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury. “The cleaning supplies they give us has no bleach or alcohol in it, so it doesn’t fight or kill the virus."

On top of that, Morale said he also hasn’t had consistent access to regular hand soap.

Nor has Brian Rock, who is incarcerated at Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton. He said last week, he used all his hand soap and had to wait three days for a new one.

“Right now, everybody’s trying to wash their hands as much as possible,” Rock said. He added the soap bars provided by the facility “lasts you two or three washes and then it’s done.”

Tyler Herd, also at Northwest State, told VPR he doesn’t have regular access to towels to dry his hands after he washes them.

Mike Hoehl wrote to VPR from Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, and he said there is no hand sanitizer at all in his unit.

“Only place I have [seen] it is in [MAT]-meds in morning time and says right on the bottle non-[alcohol] based,” Hoehl wrote.

"Every facility that is under my supervision and corrections has adequate supplies." — Commissioner Jim Baker

Commissioner of Corrections Jim Baker said his department has “a significant, major, unprecedented overhead team manage this on a daily basis.”

Although Baker couldn’t say how supplies were being distributed within facilities, he did say “every facility that is under my supervision and corrections has adequate supplies."

Two people on a dock with fishing poles, leaning in for a photo.
Credit Anna Rock, Courtesy
Brian Rock, who is currently incarcerated at Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton, poses with his son, Jacoby, after fishing. Rock said he hasn't had consistent access to hand soap during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The reports that we're hearing are concerning,” said Falko Schilling, advocacy director for the ACLU of Vermont. “We know that at the upper levels, the Department of Corrections is taking this very seriously. But that also means that this response needs to be uniform on the ground.”

The prison for women in South Burlington seems to be taking coronavirus the most seriously.

Nicole Leroux is incarcerated there, at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. In an online message, she praised that facility’s leadership.

“We are confused and anxious,” she said, but added Superintendent Theresa Stone and head of security Michael Miller “tour the units frequently looking at what works and what doesn’t.”

Leroux said the changes they had implemented made a big difference.

"Every head count the unit officer personally asks each inmate [if] she feels sick, which is comforting and beyond." — Nicole Leroux

“The women here are doing a great job cleaning with bleach non-stop to prevent the spread,” she said. “We do have everything we need for the moment.”

Leroux said that inmates receive updates about coronavirus on their tablets, and “every head count the unit officer personally asks each inmate [if] she feels sick which is comforting and beyond.”

Leroux’s messages paint a stark contrast to the stories VPR heard from men.  Male inmates said the most information they had gotten from the department included a memo about symptoms of COVID-19, and posters about how to wash your hands.

In Swanton, Brian Rock said correctional officers regularly joke about having the virus.

"There's a few staff members that are coughing all over the place and like they think it's a joke." — Brian Rock

“There’s a few staff members that are coughing all over the place and like they think it's a joke,” he said.

Rock also worries inmates who do have symptoms will keep it to themselves to avoid quarantine “in the hole.” That’s the word for segregation, what Rock describes as a roughly 6-by-10 foot room that’s used for punishment.

“The chief of security came down one day last week, I want to say it was Wednesday, and said that anybody that exhibits symptoms, they're going to be brought to segregation,” he said. “People that feel symptoms or have symptoms aren't going to say anything, because nobody wants to be punished for getting sick.”

Commissioner Baker said he doesn’t know whether cells previously used for punishment are, in fact, being used for quarantine.

In the meantime, inmates have not been practicing much social distancing. All of the inmates we talked to said they are eating meals elbow-to-elbow with at least dozens — some 100 or more — inmates at a time.

Inmates in three facilities said as recently as Wednesday, they are still playing full-contact basketball in the gym. Only St. Johnsbury stopped providing inmates basketballs before we reported this story.

“We ended that practice today,” Baker told VPR Wednesday evening, “your good reporting caused me to check into that today.”

Of course, social distancing in prison is a nearly impossible task. To make it easier, Baker said, the state has reduced the inmate population by more than 200 people in the last two weeks.

Emily Corwin reported investigative stories for VPR until August 2020. In 2019, Emily was part of a two-newsroom team which revealed that patterns of inadequate care at Vermont's eldercare facilities had led to indignities, injuries, and deaths. The consequent series, "Worse for Care," won a national Edward R. Murrow award for investigative reporting, and placed second for a 2019 IRE Award. Her work editing VPR's podcast JOLTED, about an averted school shooting, and reporting NHPR's podcast Supervision, about one man's transition home from prison, made her a finalist for a Livingston Award in 2019 and 2020. Emily was also a regular reporter and producer on Brave Little State, helping the podcast earn a National Edward R. Murrow Award for its work in 2020. When she's not working, she enjoys cross country skiing and biking.
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