State Government

Prison guards, inmates suffering: UVM study

“the yard” at Southern State Correctional Facility

by Guy Page 

Out of sight and out of mind to most Vermonters, state prison staff and inmates alike are suffering from pandemic restrictions. 

But state employees are sounding the alarm. And volunteer groups say it’s time for the Dept. of Corrections to allow family and volunteer visitation.

“We are in a five alarm fire,” Vermont State Employee President Steve Howard told the Senate Government Operations Committee Jan. 25. “This is an immediate crisis.”

The staffing shortage is crippling and discouraging for the COs (Corrections Officers) who remain on the job. Overtime hours have jumped from 19,909 in 2017 to 31,528 in 2021. As a result of this and other factors, “we are facing a 44% turnover in CO1 (entry level corrections officers) in 2021 – and that is after 30% for the three years that preceded that.”

A recent UVM study reveals a discouraged workforce with little faith in leadership. It also shows mental, physical and social price exacted by the staffing shortage and other pandemic-related restrictions on staff and inmates alike:

Since starting work in Corrections, between 39-49% of staff report developing anxiety, depression, obesity, PTSD, and high bloodpressure. 23% – almost one in four – report developing alcoholism or a substance abuse disorder. One in 10 say they’ve seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months.

For inmates, the results are worse. More than half report anxiety, depression and PTSD. One in three say they have seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months. 

Corrections Commissioner Nicholas Deml is scheduled to discuss the UVM report in the House Corrections Committee 11 AM Wednesday. Deml told media last week “these findings are disturbing, there’s absolutely no way around it.”

What neither Deml, Howard nor the UVM study address is the human impact of Corrections’ suspension of in-person visitation by family members or people from churches, recovery groups, or other volunteer groups. 

Corrections stopped in-person visitation in the early days of the pandemic. The non-contact order continues to this day. The Corrections Dept. website tersely states, “In-person visitation is suspended until further notice. Please see the COVID-19 Information Page for more information.” The Covid info page says family and friends may set up a video visitation. 

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While not disputing the impact of the staffing and budget crunch, longtime church and sobriety volunteers say spirits could be lifted simply by allowing more human contact from outside the prison walls.

Pastor Pete Fiske (left) supervises work by New Life Crew, one of the programs of The Church at Prison.

In 1992, Pete and Agnes Fiske began The Church at Prison. After Agnes’ passing in 2004, Pete eventually met Joanne and they were married in 2006 by another long time prison volunteer, Roger Patno, with Jo partnering with Pete in running the prison ministry from their home in Jericho.

As shown on this CAP video, the Fiskes lead a widespread network of staff, churches and volunteers who visit Vermont’s state prisons, counsel inmates and their families, teach them the gospel of hope in Jesus Christ, and assist them in many ways with the difficult transition back into society.  

These shepherds of the incarcerated are anxious to see their flock again.

“We discount how even a brief connection like that can help people,” Pastor Jo Fiske of the Church at Prison told Vermont Daily Chronicle recently. “When we visit, inmates tell us, ‘it’s so good to see you! This is the high point of my week.’ That is the kind of thing that has been missing.”

Pastor Pete Fiske discounts the notion that volunteers consume invaluable staff time. 

“it takes a staff person 10 minutes to check us in,” he said. “We don’t need constant supervision. If there’s a problem, there’s a camera in the room. We’ve never had to have an officer come in. It does not take a lot of staff to have volunteers come in.”

The payoff for allowing not only church but substance abuse recovery volunteers back inside state prisons is lower recidivism rate. 

“They’ll have people come out better prepared to successfully reintegrate into the community,” Pete Fiske said. 

Meanwhile, the Church at Prison produces weekly videos, distributed by DVD. 

“We get letters from people watching these, praise be to God,” CAP Pastor Josh Riggs said. But it doesn’t replace human contact. A DVD can’t listen, can’t affirm a life-changing decision, can’t listen in sympathy to an incarcerated parent or spouse distressed by news from the Outside. 

Full disclosure: the author is a member of the CAP Board of Directors. 

7 replies »

  1. Too bad they never learned; If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. Maybe UVM ought to be studying why.

  2. The only answer to the crisis in Vermont’s prisons is Jesus. I’m telling it to you straight. If His name offends you, then substitute “the Judeo-Christian God”. Jesus is part of that. But when liberal Vermont started kicking God out of many public institutions, and trying all sorts of merely human solutions instead, things got slowly worse. Not that there’s anything wrong with humans trying to alleviate bad situations, or human suffering, but without God they will ultimately not succeed. Pastor Peter Fiske and his volunteers are trying to do that. Don’t put roadblocks in their way. Man is not the highest pinnacle of all there is. There is a God. Prisoners need HOPE. God is that hope. There appears to be constant low-level hostility from officials in this state towards faith-based attempts to help. That’s what Socialism (call it Democratic Socialism — the noun is still the same) does. Put God back in the prisons — front and center. Give prisoners hope. And yes, prisoners need outside human volunteer contact — contact with outside volunteers AND their own families. I was surprised to read that apparently not even their families can visit them. That is wrong.

  3. They are criminals. Life for them is not intended to be comfortable and cozy. They are in prison for a reason. Do-goodders should care less that they have “nice thoughts or hope”. they are being punished. Even good people in hospitals cannot have visitors. Give the guards a nice bonus for all they have to put up with! When they serve their time, they can get religion.

  4. No one is trying to take away the pain and punishment that these prisoners are receiving and justly deserve. This group of people are simply volunteering their own time and resources, spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in hopes of rehabilitation. A rehabilitation that ultimately benefits all of society. Why in the world would anyone, for any reason, hinder an organization like this? Could it be that lower recidivism rates are not good for prison profits? Johnny Cash would be rolling over in his grave.

  5. How much of this goes back to covid concerns in the prisons?

    Check out how this could have been prevented with low cost preventative and early treatment measures. It’s doctors like Malone who invented the mRNA delivery system used by Pfizer and Moderna who are speaking up about 500K needless casualties of covid if cheap, effective drugs hadn’t been removed from the shelves. It’s not just prison administrators that are worthy of distrust.

  6. For those attacking the good will efforts of people like Pete and Joanne Fiske I only have one question.
    Why are you so consumed with hate that you would deny someone forgiveness ?
    What part of the article states that the Fiske’s or people like them are screaming to let the inmates out ?
    Oh that’s right, it isn’t the Fiske’s that are calling for that. But the liberals are. The staff and the inmates are suffering, terribly and needlessly.
    The covid protocols and the mask mandates have proven to be useless. Nothing the State has forced on this population has stopped or limited anything.
    But look at it this way, must be the people in Corrections don’t believe in redemption either.
    So just like what Scott and Levine are doing to the people of Vermont, whoever is making this decision for the Vt Department of Corrections has done the same thing.
    Nothing they are doing is stopping the spread or record high rates of infection. But Hey, who cares as long as we keep pushing the agenda ?
    Never mind the fact corrections officers and staff are suffering too, let’s keep punishing the inmates and their families.
    The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result.

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