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Disastrous Conditions in Vermont Prisons

Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project who have just visited four Vermont Prisons announced today that they plan to extend and deepen their investigation into unconstitutional prison conditions there. Attorney Edward Koren, team member and veteran litigator in major prison conditions cases around the country, ranked Vermont's prisons among the worst he has encountered in many years. "There seem to be a number of disastrous health and environmental issues in Vermont's facilities which are caused or exaggerated by the extreme overcrowding, but the worst problem we have encountered so far is the virtually complete lack of medical, dental or mental health care for even the most gravely ill prisoners. The denial of even rudimentary health care indicates a deliberate indifference to inmates' most basic human needs."

The team also stressed that the explosive overcrowding in Vermont's prisons is in large part caused by Department of Corrections officials and prison staff. "Prison staff has virtually unbridled power to arbitrarily force prisoners to `max out' their sentences," said team attorney Margaret Winter. "They use this power to force hundreds of inmates into highly controversial behavior modification programs. These programs not only waste precious corrections resources, they also violate the human dignity of both prisoners and prison staff." For example, one of Vermont's so-called "self-change" programs which the ACLU team is investigating reportedly includes mandatory masturbation sessions, and mandatory recounting of sexual fantasies in group sessions of inmates, guards, and female caseworkers. Inmates are also required to view pornographic pictures while a device called the penile plethysmograph, attached to the inmate's penis and monitored by a caseworker, supposedly measures the inmate's sexual arousal. "We believe the people of Vermont will feel as much revulsion as we did when they learn what their tax dollars have been buying," said Winter.

According to team lawyer Marjorie Rifkin, the National Prison Project's investigation has prompted Corrections Commissioner John Gorczyk's recent push in the legislature for more money to open more prisons. "We see the Corrections' response as an attempt to manipulate the people of Vermont into pouring more money into an already mismanaged system," said Rifkin. "Better that the state should spend its scarce corrections resources on improvements in the delivery of desperately needed health care services."

"One way or another, we hope by negotiation but if necessary by litigation, we are committed to help bring about far-reaching change in Vermont's prisons, and we intend to move ahead quickly," said attorney Margaret Winter.

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