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.
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.
Categories: State Government