In Vermont, Isolating Inmates Kept Covid at Bay, but at a Price

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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.”

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