By Guy Page
Gov. Phil Scott supports restoration of family and volunteer visitation at Vermont prisons, he said at his Feb. 2 press conference.
Vermont Daily Chronicle asked: “Governor, given the UVM report about increasing mental health problems, including consideration of suicide, in our state prisons, is it time to reopen the prisons to in-person visitation by family members and volunteers, including recovery and church groups?”
“My answer would be yes,” Scott said. “I believe we need to get back to normal. And that would include visitation.”
Vermont prisons were closed to visitation since the early days of the pandemic in 2020. Gov. Scott’s comment is the first time any major administration official has cracked open the door since then.
Pandemic restrictions have led to major emotional, social and mental problems among prison staff and inmates, a UVM study reports.
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.”
The 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 was 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.”
Two shepherds to incarcerated Vermonters 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.