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State police say prisoner held in St. Johnsbury died by apparent suicide

A prison exterior with hills in the background.
Erica Heilman
VPR File
A 29-year-old person held at Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury died by suicide Sunday night, state police say. Dustin Dunkling is the third person to die at a Vermont state prison this year.

A 29-year-old person died by suicide at the state prison in St. Johnsbury on Sunday night, state police say. There have now been three fatalities at state prisons this year.

State police said in a press release that Dustin Dunkling was alone in a cell at Northeast Correctional Complex. Dunkling was lodged on March 24 for a parole violation on charge of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child. Dunkling was placed in quarantine for two weeks, per the Department of Corrections COVID-19 mitigation policy.

Dunkling was found unresponsive by DOC staff Sunday evening and attempts to revive Dunkling were unsuccessful, the department said. Dunkling was pronounced dead at the prison. An autopsy is pending, police say.

State police and the Defender General’s office will conduct separate investigations of the incident per state policy. DOC will conduct an administrative and medical review as well.

Dunkling isn’t the first person to die while held in a quarantine cell. In December 2020, Michael Dupont, who was also incarcerated in St. Johnsbury, died by suspected suicide.

DOC said in a press release Monday night that it would review its intake quarantine procedure.

DOC Commissioner Nicholas Deml, in a prepared statement, called Dunkling’s death “tragic.”

“The pandemic’s toll on mental and emotional well-being is acutely apparent in our Department, where we see first-hand the impact the pandemic has had on both our staff and those in our care and custody,” Deml said. “We will continue to focus our attention on the mental and emotional health needs of our incarcerated population and our staff as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and build toward our future.”

Dunkling, who identified as a transgender female when they were booked, was placed at a men’s prison for the intake quarantine period. DOC spokesperson Rachel Feldman said in an email that the department “considers a transgender individual’s preference” when determining where they’ll be housed.

“Regardless of the ultimate placement decision, individuals are not moved while in intake quarantine irrespective of gender identity; quarantine is a zero-contact housing placement,” Feldman said.

Dunkling was the third incarcerated person to die at a Vermont prison this year.

Raymond Gadreault, 73,died in February at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield. Gadreault experienced a “medical issue” and staff were unable to resuscitate him, state police said in February. A subsequent investigation found Gadreault died of natural causes and the case is now closed, VSP spokesperson Adam Silverman said in an email.

On New Year’s Day, staff at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport tried to administer emergency care to Michael Cornell in his cell before he was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead, DOCsaid at the time. Cornell, 34, appears to have died from an accidental drug overdose, Seven Daysreported in late March. State police are still investigating the incident, according to Silverman.

Defender General Matt Valerio said in an email that his office’s report on Cornell’s death will be finished soon, and the inquiry into Gadreault’s death is still pending.

The news comes just days after a significant reshuffling of leadership in the prison system. The superintendent at Northeast Correctional Complex, Norah Quinn, announced her retirement last week.

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

Corrected: April 5, 2022 at 1:26 PM EDT
This post has been updated with additional information from the Department of Corrections. A previous version of the story also used incorrect pronouns for Dunkling due to erroneous information from state police. Dunkling, when lodged in March, identified as a transgender female, DOC said.
Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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