Scott's inaction on prisons puts all Vermonters at risk

By many accounts, the Scott administration’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has been transparent, measured, and reasonable. But in at least one respect it has been none of those things, and that is the administration’s continued failure to ensure that the people who live and work in our prisons are treated with dignity and provided the same protections as other Vermonters.

In the context of a public health crisis, the administration’s reckless disregard of the risk of a coronavirus outbreak in Vermont’s prisons poses a threat not only to people in custody, but to the public at large. By refusing to utilize broader testing strategies and ignoring viable options to safely reduce the prison population, Governor Scott is gambling with people’s lives, and the health and safety of our communities. 

The Vermonters in our prisons are among the most vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19, and the threat of a public health disaster originating in these facilities is not hypothetical. As of last week, at least eight more people at the St. Albans prison had tested positive for coronavirus, bringing the total number to at least 63. If that facility were a town, it would have the second highest number of infections in Vermont, behind only Burlington.

It is unclear why Governor Scott has not ordered testing in all Vermont correctional facilities, especially now that we have the capacity to do it.  We all know individuals can be contagious before they show symptoms. Still, the Scott administration maintains such proactive testing is not “necessary.” We saw how well this strategy worked in St. Albans, where approximately 15 percent of the prison population became infected before the administration finally started testing everyone.

A recent study by ACLU and academic researchers found that without significant decarceration, as many as 100,000 additional deaths nationwide could end up being attributable to prisons and jails, three quarters of those deaths occurring in the community. That is why, in addition to testing, the ACLU has repeatedly called on the Scott administration to safely reduce Vermont’s prison population to the greatest extent possible. Two months later, we are still waiting on the governor to take necessary action.

Specifically, we urged Governor Scott to use his authority to safely release or grant furlough to people who are medically compromised and at high risk of harm. Instead, AHS Secretary Mike Smith dismissed this entire group of vulnerable people as “hard core criminals,” the same bogus tactic opponents of reform have used for years.

We urged the administration to release people approaching their minimum sentence. Governors in other states have done this, reasoning that if people are about to be released anyway, why wait a few extra weeks or months and subject them and the community to higher risk? Governor Scott has ignored that recommendation. 

We have also urged the administration to release anyone who was reincarcerated on a “technical violation” of furlough that does not implicate public safety—at this point, no one should be in prison because of something like a curfew violation. Instead, DOC has suspended programming requirements people must complete in order to be released and is now using that as a justification for not releasing them.

In short, the Scott administration has not seriously considered hundreds of individuals whose safe releases could reduce the threat of another outbreak, and is still not in any hurry to do so. For all the state’s efforts to limit new prison admissions, and all the hard work of responding to myriad challenges posed by COVID-19, the Scott administration has failed to pursue viable strategies to reduce a significant threat to public health, and has not openly and honestly accounted for why.

Governor Scott must not forget that the people in our prisons are also members of our communities—many are themselves victims of trauma or are there for reasons stemming from substance use disorder, mental health, or poverty. They are also parents to the 6,000 Vermont children impacted by our punitive criminal justice system. By endangering their lives, the governor is also risking the safety and well-being of all of us. 

This crisis is not going away any time soon: Vermont’s correctional facilities will remain potential hot spots for a long time to come. It is not too late for Governor Scott to do what is needed to protect the lives of the people who live and work in Vermont’s prisons and our communities. No one in Vermont was sentenced to suffer and die in a pandemic.