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Vermont Inmates Dispute Officials' Narrative About Hand Sanitizer

A blue gloved hand pouring clear liquid into a clear bottle.
Elodie Reed
The Department of Corrections poured hand sanitizer into bottles for staff and inmates on April 17, and while officials have said inmates have had access to it, inmates have told VPR otherwise.

Over the last two months, inmates and the Vermont Department of Corrections have offered conflicting accounts about the availability of alcohol-based hand sanitizer behind bars. 

Prison officials have told reporters, lawmakers — even said under oath — that inmates have access to hand sanitizer made with alcohol, the ingredient recommended by the CDC to kill the coronavirus.

Yet even after department staff reportedly distributed 90 gallons of alcohol-based hand sanitizer to the state’s six prisons, inmates told VPR the only hand sanitizer they had access to was alcohol-free.

It wasn’t until a reporter asked DOC for comment on this story that inmates said that changed. 

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

The discord is emblematic of the struggle Department of Corrections officials seem to face coordinating their pandemic response across the state’s six prisons.

For weeks, Nicole Leroux said, she thought the hand sanitizer mounted on her unit’s wall would protect her from the coronavirus. Leroux is incarcerated in South Burlington, and she said since the COVID-19 outbreak began, she’s been using that hand sanitizer all the time.

“I thought all hand sanitizer was actually supposed to sanitize,” she said, and nobody told her otherwise.

Leroux’s prison job includes fetching supplies from the warehouse for each unit. And after she learned recently that hand sanitizer needed to have alcohol in it to kill coronavirus, she checked the ingredients.

“And on the hand sanitizer box, it says, 'Non-alcohol,'” she said.

This Monday marked six weeks since the first DOC staff member tested positive for COVID-19. And inmates at facilities across the state recently told VPR they still did not have access to alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

A man with two kids on a slide.
Credit Joel Coon, Courtesy
Joel Coon, who told VPR that up until this week, there'd only been alcohol-free hand sanitizer available at Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland.

“There is hand sanitizer in the day room, but it is alcohol-free,” Joel Coon wrote to VPR last week from his cell at Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland.

Michael Hoehl at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport said the same was true in his unit. “Even the CO’s will tell us [there’s] no [alcohol]” in the hand sanitizer, he said.

Eric Williams at Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury said he’s pretty confident the hand sanitizer in the day room didn’t have alcohol in it, “because you can usually smell it.” 

While inmates’ complaints have remained consistent, explanations from DOC have varied.

At first, officials said inmates did have access to the substance. On March 30, Commissioner Jim Baker told lawmakers on the Joint Rules Committee that, because the Centers for Disease Control recommended alcohol-based hand sanitizer to kill the coronavirus, inmates would receive the product despite a previous ban on alcohol-based substances.

“Each facility’s getting delivered today, cases of hand sanitizer,” he said.

A week later, the department said in a press release ”hand sanitizer is available for all staff and inmates.” But when pressed during a news conference the next day, facilities executive Al Cormier said it was only the alcohol-free hand sanitizer which was available.

Cormier added the alcohol-based supply had run out because “the inmates were hoarding it.”

But, he said, that was about to change.

Over the last month, DOC officials said they purchased, bottled and delivered to prisons 90 gallons of hand sanitizer that is 80% alcohol. In court two weeks ago, Al Cormier testified under oath to its availability.

“I know how much hand sanitizer has been pushed into our facilities to understand that there has not been a shortage,” he said.

More from VPR: Vermont Inmates Report Inconsistent Access To Soap, Hand Sanitizer

Yet earlier this week, inmates said, yet again, they still didn’t have access to hand sanitizer with alcohol in it. That changed Thursday, after VPR reached out to DOC for comment for this story.

“So they just made alcohol-based hand sanitizer available for us at 8 p.m.,” Joel Coon wrote to VPR from Marble Valley Thursday night.

“They actually came in the units yesterday and put a gallon jug with a pump on the officer’s desk for us to use,” Eric Williams said from his St. Johnsbury prison unit’s day room on Friday morning. “We have a dispenser on the wall with alcohol-related sanitizer.”

Nicole Leroux in South Burlington also called to say officers were now offering inmates alcohol-based hand sanitizer from a desk in her unit.

Friday morning, DOC spokesperson Rachel Feldman responded VPR’s request for comment: “We have verified with all our facility superintendents that alcohol-based hand sanitizer is available in every living unit within our facilities."

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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