State says prison ringleaders to blame for disturbance

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(Host) The state’s corrections commissioner says the inmates responsible for a prison riot in Rutland last weekend may get more time behind bars.

But there is disagreement about the conditions that led to the violence. The state says several ringleaders are to blame. But a lawyer whose office defends prisoners says a new disciplinary system raised tensions at the prison.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Commissioner Rob Hofmann said the disturbance last Saturday at the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility started when one inmate was punished by being locked early into his cell.

(Hofmann) “And he refused. And then he egged on some other people. It very well could have been a pre-orchestrated, pre-planned event. But that was the excuse, or the precipitating point – his refusal.”

(Dillon) Eventually, 13 inmates refused to be locked down. They beat up another prisoner, broke sprinkler pipes and destroyed property. Hofmann says the disturbance was confined to one cell block. He says prison officials called state and local police for help.

(Hofmann) “So the whole thing lasted about two and a quarter hours, almost exactly. And it ended after the superintendent of the facility authorized the deployment of pepper spray. So between the irritant that was put into the living unit and the barking dogs from a police canine unit that was there as backup to the corrections staff, the inmates elected to the throw in the towel, and it ended rather quickly.”

(Dillon) Defender General Matt Valerio says there’s no excuse for rioting in prison. But he says tensions were high at the Rutland facility because of a new disciplinary system.

The system allows prison staff to reward or punish prisoners by granting or taking away minor privileges.

Valerio says his office has received complaints for months that the system is arbitrary, and that prisoners can’t appeal the decisions.

(Valerio) “That is the biggest thing that inmates seek when they’re on the inside. They need to know what the rules are, what they can expect the response to be, and predictability. Change within facilities inherently causes tension.”

(Dillon) Hofmann says only a few people were responsible for the violence. He says the instigators will be punished and will probably face lengthier sentences.

(Hofmann) “Whether or not the incentives for good behavior and against bad behavior were a catalyst for this, it’s a little hard to tell. We certainly will have conversations with facility staff and they, undoubtedly, with the inmates at the facility to get their input. But in no way is any grievance that someone may have any excuse to behave in a violent and destructive manner like this.”

(Dillon) Hofmann says corrections officers have increased planning and training in recent months to improve security and handle prison disturbances. He says the preparation paid off last weekend, as officials quelled the situation quickly with no injuries to corrections personnel.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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