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Kitchen Crew Members At St. Johnsbury Prison Request Sentence Reductions

A prison exterior with hills in the background.
Erica Heilman
VPR File
Inmates working in the kitchen at the St. Johnsbury prison are asking for 30-day sentence reductions in exchange for cooking for the population of inmates who are in medical isolation for COVID-19.

Vermont law allows the Department of Corrections to reward heroic and selfless acts with a 30-day sentence reduction. Some men in the kitchen crew at the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury say they should receive this reward. 

Before prison officialsmoved more than 30 inmates with COVID-19 from the Northwest Correctional Facility in Franklin County to the St. Johnsbury for medical isolation, they removed most of that facility's other inmates to the state's other prisons. Left behind in St. Johnsbury were 25 uninfected inmates tasked with cooking for the new arrivals. 

More from VPR: Vermont Corrections Commissioner: 'We Didn't Expect This Number'

Eric Williams is in charge of baking, and he told VPR that he and his 24 fellow kitchen workers deserve recognition.

"If it wasn't for us guys that were here helping them out, I don't believe these guys who are infected would be getting what they need," Williams said.

Williams added he believes the kitchen crew's proximity to the "hot zone," where infected inmates are held, puts their health at risk. He pointed out that the same guards who work in the unit with infected inmates also work in the kitchen crew’s unit.

More from VPR: How Are Vermont Prisons Handling COVID-19?

“I mean, we hear on the news [coronavirus] can live on a surface for up to three days,” he said.

“There’s some that been down in the hot zone, and then the next day they’re up here working in the unit where we are,” said Walter Warren, who preps vegetables on the kitchen crew. He said the prison gives his crew extra cookies and ice cream at night in thanks for their work.

“That ain’t sh--,” Warren said.

“We should get some kind of good time being on the front lines and put at risk when we [didn’t] ask and keep this place running,” wrote Justin Morale in a message to VPR.

More from VPR: Mental Health Services Suspended At Some Vermont Prisons

"Extraordinary good time" is the name of the statute section empowering DOC commissioners to reduce inmates’ sentences for acts of selflessness.

“Those folks that were left behind there and provide those services have done unbelievable work,” said Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker, when asked about the kitchen crew’s request for extraordinary good time.  Not only is he very appreciative, he said, but he also believes that when dozens of cars recently drove by the prison to show support, "it wasn't just for us, it was for them as well." 

As for the request for good time, Baker said he would put the issue on a list to discuss with his leadership team, but added “no guarantees.”

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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