Guards say prison staffing risks public safety

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(Host) Corrections officers at several Vermont prisons say an increase in inmates and a shortage of staff have reached a critical point. Vermont’s corrections commissioner told representatives of prison staff this week that the department is working on solutions.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) Staff at Vermont’s correctional facilities say the state’s prisons are bursting at the seams with too many inmates and not enough officers. In several facilities, gymnasiums are being used to house prisoners.

Dave Turner is a caseworker at the Northwest State Correction Facility in Saint Albans. Turner says some offenders are out on the street because there’s no longer room for them in jail.

(Turner) “They try to keep the most dangerous people in jail. But there are people out there now, if we had the beds, a lot of these people would still be in jail.”

(Zind) Steve Mitchell is a veteran corrections officer in Saint Albans. Mitchell says he’s concerned the situation is a threat to public safety.

(Mitchell) “That’s what I’m hired for, not just for security inside of the operations, I’m hired also for the security of the public.”

(Zind) Mitchell says he’s also worried about his own safety because the increase in inmates hasn’t been accompanied by an increase in prison staff. Dave Turner says understaffing means procedures aren’t always followed. For example, accompanying groups of prisoners when they move from building to building:

(Turner) “This morning, we didn’t have enough staff to do that and the supervisor said, ‘Just let them go.’ We said, ‘We thought we were supposed to escort them.’ And he said, ‘Not today, we’re not.’ And the reason we escort them is because we have had escape attempts.”

(Zind) In some cases the ratio of guards to prisoners is being increased. Holes are made in walls connecting cell areas so a single officer can watch twice as many prisoners. The guards say it’s impossible to watch prisoners in these situations and it exposes guards to greater danger.

Understaffing also means officers are required to work overtime. David Bellini works at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. He says to save money, officers are often hired as temporary employees, working 12-hour days without benefits and at lower pay.

(Bellini) “If you were pulled over by a state trooper with a paper badge and a toy gun, who said ‘I’m only a temporary, let me see your license,’ you’d be laughed out of government. But I guess it’s okay for the Department of Corrections.”

(Zind) Bellini is on the union bargaining team representing corrections workers. He met this week with Commissioner Steve Gold. Gold says opening the new Springfield prison next month will help in the short term. He says he’s moving away from hiring temporary officers and reviewing the ratio of guards to prisoners.

Gold says while the system is under great stress, the safety of the public and prison personnel is not in danger and procedures are being followed.

(Gold) “The director of security here has been making many visits recently over the summer to facilities to ensure that we are following procedures to the best of our ability, and that our procedures are not compromised.”

(Zind) Gold says overcrowding is not a factor in the decision to release a person from prison and into the community. He says he’s working with the Legislature on long-term solutions to prison overcrowding.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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