For weeks at a time, John Sughrue and other Vermont prison inmates were locked in 8½-by-10-foot cells in near-total isolation. They ate meals a few feet from their toilets, had no visitors, and spent as little as 10 minutes a day outside cells.
It was not punishment for anything they had done or for any trouble at the prisons. The isolation was meant to protect the prisoners from Covid-19.
While precautionary lockdowns — which prohibit almost all inmate movement — have been common across the country throughout the pandemic, Vermont took more extensive precautions in its prisons than other states did. And its strategy worked: Relatively few of its inmates have tested positive, and Vermont is the only state where not a single inmate has died from Covid-19.
But those measures have also taken a heavy toll on many inmates’ mental health, and driven some to psychological despair.
There has been at least one suicide and a suicide attempt inside the isolation cells where incoming inmates in Vermont are required to quarantine for 14 days. Inmates have said that existing mental health issues have been aggravated both by isolation and by the lack of regular mental health services during much of the pandemic.
“They simply do not have the resources here for the kind of help anyone needs,” Mr. Sughrue, who has since been released, wrote in an email last month from Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield. “I have never been so terrified for such an extended period of time in my life.”
Vermont’s response to the coronavirus has been both praised and criticized, and it is likely to be studied widely by criminologists, psychologists and public health experts.
Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an authority on the psychological effects of incarceration, said that isolation can have profoundly negative effects anywhere, but especially in prison settings.
“Self-isolation and the lockdowns that we’ve experienced in society at large are being done in the name of preserving, as best we can, our physical well-being or medical health,” Dr. Haney said. “Prisoners who are required to isolate don’t have access to all of the goods and services and distractions that the rest of the free world have access to. They have only the emptiness of their cell.”
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Jim Baker, interim commissioner of the Vermont Department of Corrections, said he understood why the tactics he employed to keep inmates safe were being questioned.
“There’s times these facilities are locked down for 20 to 30 days,” Mr. Baker said. “That means they’re in their cells 20 to 23 hours a day. I don’t care who you are, that’s enough to break anybody.”
But Vermont has done a better job of keeping people alive than other states with similar prison populations have.
Hawaii, which has about 2,000 inmates — about 700 more than Vermont — reported more than 1,400 coronavirus infections and nine deaths through April 1, according to a New York Times database. Vermont has seen 456 infections and no deaths in the same period.
Mr. Baker has ordered a number of measures that other state prison systems either failed to use or did not apply in as timely a way.
For example, Vermont has been testing all its inmates — an average of six times each over the past year. Some state prison systems test only those inmates who are showing signs of illness.
Vermont was among the first states to release inmates to make room for social distancing. The state housed correctional officers in motel rooms to reduce the risk that they would introduce the virus to prisons or bring it home to their families.
And when testing revealed an infection, the prison system and the Vermont Department of Health performed contact tracing to find its origin.
“We took it dead serious from the first day,” Mr. Baker said in an interview, adding, “I’m the one that’s got to look a parent in their face, or their husband, or their wife, or their significant other, and say, ‘We didn’t do what we should have done, and your child is dead.’”
That sense of urgency was critical, said Matthew Valerio, the state’s defender general, Vermont’s equivalent of a chief public defender.
“When you compare it to what you look at nationally I think the Vermont Department of Corrections did an excellent job — they kept the virus out of the facilities for a really long time,” Mr. Valerio said.
But it is the state’s isolation practices that have gotten the most attention.
Mr. Baker told a state legislative committee in January that he and his staff were aware of several instances of self-harm among inmates being held in quarantine, and that he was seeking ways to mitigate the toll that it takes.
“We call it quarantine — it’s just a nice name for isolation,” Mr. Baker said in the interview. “You’re by yourself. You’re in a cell. It’s 14 days. We’ve drawn a lot of criticism from advocates because of that, and I understand their point. But we believe that that’s probably one of the biggest things that’s kept our system clean.”
Whether the state could have done better at protecting the often fragile mental health of incarcerated people is a matter of debate.
“It’s a delicate balance — and prisons and jails are not particularly good at delicate balances,” Dr. Haney said. “They have only one way of doing one thing and one way of doing another. So not surprisingly, many of them have resorted to putting people in solitary confinement, a punitive environment, an environment of great painful deprivation, which causes, even under the best of circumstances and non-pandemic times, many prisoners to psychologically deteriorate, and some of them to take their lives.”
At least two people incarcerated in Vermont have attempted suicide while in isolation in the past year, according to the corrections department. One attempt was fatal: a 36-year-old male inmate at the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury.
No reports have surfaced of suicides in Covid-19 isolation cells in other states, but some states do not make that kind of information public. Many state prison systems are so crowded that isolating an inmate for two weeks as a pandemic precaution is seen as impractical. Nationally, suicide rates are far higher in prisons than among the general population.
Vermont uses solitary-confinement cells for Covid-19 quarantine, but officials said the inmates sent there do not get the harsh treatment that solitary would usually entail. They are given electronic tablets, books and puzzles, and are allowed to place free calls to family members.
Even so, “we were in our cells 23 hours and 50 minutes a day, so we got 10 minutes a day to either shower or heat up some coffee,” Robert Havens, an inmate at Southern State Correctional Facility, wrote in an email in March about a three-week lockdown there.
“It’s a big concern of ours,” Mr. Baker said about what quarantined inmates go through. “We know that that type of isolation, with someone who has underlying depression and/or other behavioral health issues, can lead to bad outcomes.”
Mr. Havens said he knew that all too well.
“My mental health is OK,” he wrote in a recent email. “That said, if we are locked down again for a significant period, I will not be happy.”
Timothy Williams contributed reporting.