Staffers: Cutting Costs at VT Prison Led to Toxic Gas

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Photo by Osvaldo Eaf via Flickr

In 2016, officials from the Department of Buildings and General Services (BGS) partnered with the Vermont Department of Correction in an effort to cut costs and be more energy efficient.

The officials came up with an idea to install “ozone-injection systems” into the prison laundry machines, which would eliminate the need for hot water and detergent. State officials wrote in a 2018 report that the cost to run the ozone system would be $13,500, and it would save about $22,000 annually in electricity costs.

However, the ozone-injection system was “defective and improperly installed,” at one point maxing out dangerous fume detector tests carried out by investigators from the Vermont Occupational and Health Administration.

Now corrections officers who have had their health negatively impacted are coming forward as their pain continues to worsen. Many are blaming improper resources and terrible prison conditions according to VT Digger.

Andrea Smith, a corrections officer at Northeast Regional Correctional Center, told VT Digger that due to understaffing, she began working outside the laundry room at the guard’s desk at the start of 2017.

By March, she developed tremors and trouble breathing. One morning, Smith didn’t recognize that she was in her own home, and she began forgetting more things, like the PIN to her debit card. She reports that her muscles in her arms and legs constantly ache and that she lost her senses of smell and taste.

“I just used to be a strong person, and I’m not anymore,” said Smith, who is considering legal action against the installation contractor after hearing from medical specialists that this was from the toxic gas. “The gas just took all that out of me,” she said.

“One hour to one month ‘short term exposure’ ” to ozone gas causes respiratory problems, according to a 2019 Environmental Protection Agency report cited by VT Digger. “Long-term—more than a month—exposure is likely to cause respiratory impacts, too, according to the document,” said the report.

Smith also remembers that there were many “flu-like cases” among the inmates at that time.

Another correctional officer detailed symptoms of “heart fluttering and minor nausea” to reporters. Others suffered from pneumonia and coughing, VT Digger reports.

BGS investigators found that in 2017, the “culprit” behind the serious health problems was improper ventilation because a drain was sealed shut with cement and a vent fan wasn’t working, VT Digger explained.

“I think if we had kept going, somebody would’ve died,” the investigator told VT Digger. “And they still wouldn’t know what was going on.”

Interim Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker declined to give a comment to VT Digger when contacted last week, citing potential litigation.

Prisons attempting to cut costs in order to save more money has shown up in the media more and more, with stories of worsening conditions and critical understaffing, seriously endangering corrections officers and prisoners alike.

In recent weeks, Mississippi inmates have been telling horror stories detailing “roaches in their beds and mold in their food crumbling ceilings and sweltering Mississippi summers without air conditioning.”

Most of these conditions are due to underfunding and understaffing, The Hill reports.

In February 2019, a “faltering electrical panel exploded” in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, causing a fire and cutting the electricity. Hundreds of inmates were locked in their cells with no heat or hot water for a week, The New York Times detailed.

“A facilities manager later testified at a hearing in federal court that issues began a week or two before the fire,” The New York Times reported. “On Jan. 21 [2019], some heating coils that draw water from the boilers had frozen in a cold snap and broke.”

It’s unclear why the issue wasn’t fixed before the panel eventually exploded.

Inmates were not only freezing cold but also weren’t always given their medications, like anti-psychotic drugs, and others had “raging infections” that festered during the blackout. Other inmates were denied antibiotics and Tylenol by the jail staff, The New York Times reported.

In April of 2019, The Crime Report detailed how a Michigan women’s prison suffered an outbreak of scabies that took the Michigan Department of Corrections more than a year to diagnose and properly treat.

At one point, the department blamed the prisoners, “for using improvised soap to clean their undergarments in their cells,” The Crime Report explained.

Addressing and fixing the “barbaric” prison and jail conditions across our country has been considered the “missing link” to criminal justice reform by academics and activists alike.

Researcher Andrea C. Armstrong, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, detailed in a report that by dealing with worsening conditions, underfunding, and understaffing, future problems in prisons can be mitigated for both prisoners and corrections officers.

This summary was prepared by Andrea Cipriano.

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