Finding mental health solutions in Vt. prisons

According to DOC data, while deaths remain low, self-harm incidents spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic
Published: Jan. 22, 2023 at 7:10 AM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Nine inmates died in Vermont prisons last year, according to the Vermont Department of Corrections, which categorizes them as death by natural causes, unclear causes, and suicide.

DOC Commissioner Nick Deml says self-harm incidents following the pandemic are an area of concern. “We see a population that has experienced a lot of trauma in their lives, often having substance use issues present with mental health issues,” he said. “We put people in lockdown for long periods of time because we needed to keep the populations safe, but isolation was hard. We limited visitation, we limited recreation, and all of those things reverberated.”

Inmate deaths in Vermont prisons remain low year after year, averaging about five per year over the last decade. Of those deaths, only five are the result of suicide. But the number of inmates attempting to take their own lives or intentionally hurting themselves is much higher. According to the Department of Corrections, self-harm incidents are tracked as “self-harm statements” that are rated as low, moderate, or high lethality. Examples include asphyxiation, banging, and lacerations.

The number of self-harm statements shows a major increase in 2020, nearly double the number from 2019. Since then, the numbers have come down to 393 in 2021 and 258 in 2022. Both years tally below the five-year average of nearly 450.

“Finding mental health practitioners is challenging, but we’re currently bidding out our healthcare contract, and the goal there is to create a new contract that really focuses more heavily on mental health,” Deml said.

Along with that, the Department of Corrections joined forces with the Defender General’s Office to create solutions to a potential mental health gap in Vermont prisons.

“Screenings do take place for every single person that comes in, and there are time frames where you’re more vulnerable to self-harm than not,” Vermont Defender General Matt Valerio said. “That’s where a lot of the focus is, and it’s right up front, whether you’re a detainee or you’re starting a sentence.”

Valerio says the joint committee is still finalizing its last report.

Deml says they’re also working to overhaul the grievance system and move to an online, monitored format.

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Survey of Vt. prisons spotlights low morale, staffing problems