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Vt. Prisons Used Lockdowns To Slow Coronavirus, But Prisoners' Mental Health Suffered

A sign in the grass, near some trees.
Lydia Brown
Northern State Correctional Facility, in Newport, was a on lockdown for about a month and a half due to a COVID-19 outbreak. The Department of Corrections says it was the longest pandemic-related lockdown.

None of the 1,200 or so people held by the Vermont Department of Corrections died from COVID-19, making it the only state in the country with no coronavirus fatalities among its incarcerated population. But while protocols like regular testing and lockdowns might have helped Vermont prisons avoid the worst of the pandemic, the strict lockdown measures took a toll.

Throughout the pandemic, some of Vermont's worst COVID-19 outbreaks occurred in prisons. More than a third of the state's incarcerated people caught the disease.

On Feb. 25, the Department of Corrections received COVID-19 test results from Northern State Correctional Facility: One staff member and 21 incarcerated individuals were positive. Officials swiftly placed the Newport facility on full lockdown to try to slow the spread of virus.

That meant 52-year-old Todd Gorton and his bunkmate were almost totally confined to a 8-foot by 12-foot cell. They got out for only 15 minutes a day to shower.

"The maddest is you can't move, you can't walk out the door." — Todd Gorton, incarcerated individual at NSCF

“The maddest is you can't move you can't walk out the door,” Gorton said in a phone interview.“You're held captive — I mean, the door shut; you ain't doing nothing.”

Prior to the pandemic, people in prison routinely got out of their cells for things like meals and exercise. But DOC stopped communal activities during the pandemic. Early in the crisis, they even released about 300 people to make more space for social distancing -- though advocates pushed for them to release more people. Full lockdowns, like the one at Northern State Correctional Facility, were used if cases cropped up.

Ultimately 179 people held at the Newport prison, around half the population, tested positive for COVID-19. Gorton didn’t catch the virus, but for 49 days he was stuck in his cell.

“You create a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress,” he said. “And then the humiliation of just having to sh-- in front of your bunkie ... It was unbearable.”

More from VPR: ‘Gov. Scott Owns This’: ACLU On Northern State Correctional Facility COVID-19 Outbreak

Northern State Correctional Facility had the longest lockdown of any Vermont state prison. A DOC spokesperson said the department didn’t have a count of how many pandemic-related lockdowns occurred, but said all six state prisons had them.

These measures might have slowed the spread of COVID-19, but research shows restrictive housing practices have detrimental effects on mental health.

Keramet Reiter, associate professor of criminology and law at the University of California Irvine, said extended confinement can produce symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“And they include hallucination, insomnia, trouble sleeping, trouble modulating your emotions. All kinds of severe mental health crises can ensue,” she said.

"We had to do something that was going to be drastic, but ... what's the lesser of two evils?" — Interim DOC Commissioner Jim Baker

Corrections officials had few options, said interim DOC Commissioner Jim Baker: “We had to do something that was going to be drastic, but ... what's the lesser of two evils? And the lesser of two evils was doing what we did, in order for us to be able to stop the spread of the virus.”

When asked by VPR, Baker acknowledge that the lockdown protocol likely caused some lasting damage.

“No two ways around it,” he said. “That's why these decisions were not easy. But they had to be made in order to protect and make sure that we didn't lose lives in big numbers.”

All of Vermont’s prisons reported some cases of COVID-19, but no one died.

Defender General Matt Valerio, who oversees the prisoner’s rights office, said DOC’s response to the pandemic was the best it could have been, given the circumstances.

“The imminent danger was that of the virus, and then you had to try to manage the mental health as best you could,” Valerio said.

Valerio said DOC was receptive to his office’s requests, like giving incarcerated people tablets so they could make video calls to family. In-person visits have been suspended since last March.

More From Brave Little State: How Are Vermont Prisons Handling COVID-19?

Restrictions at the prison won’t be lifted until the vaccination rate of incarcerated individuals improves — it’s currently around 68%.

Baker, the DOC commissioner, said he hopes families will be allowed to visit by July.

“But we're going very slow, because, you know, we want to make sure we're doing this deliberately and not slide backwards and run the risk of another outbreak in a facility,” he said.

DOC might require vaccines for visitors and incarcerated people who want to meet with family or outside groups, Baker said.

"The imminent danger was that of the virus, and then you had to try to manage the mental health as best you could." — Vermont Defender General Matt Valerio

The threat of a new coronavirus case and another lockdown weighs on some of those jailed in Vermont. Northern State Correctional Facility, shortly after being cleared of an outbreak, was forced into another lockdown after a staffer tested positive.

Gorton, who is incarcerated in Newport, has about a year left on his sentence. He said going back and forth between lockdowns is draining: “I would not wish this on anybody — I'm serious."

The most recent lockdown at the prison is now over. Gorton, who has a job in the prison woodshop, said getting to work helps reduce his stress. But he’s still worried that if another case shows up he’ll be back in his cell — and stuck there.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors

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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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