29-year-old Vermont prisoner dies by suicide in quarantine cell | Jails | Seven days

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  • File: Luke Awtry
  • An empty cell in a Vermont jail

Another Vermont prisoner has died in a COVID-19 quarantine cell, the Department of Corrections announced Monday.

Dustin Dunkling, 29, of St. Albans, appears to have died by suicide at the St. Johnsbury Northeast Correctional Complex on Sunday evening, according to Vermont State Police. The state medical examiner will perform an autopsy to determine the cause of his death.

Dunkling was jailed March 24 for a probation violation, police said. After arriving, he was kept alone in a cell for two weeks, under Department of Corrections pandemic protocols. Precaution, more typically used as a punishment for misbehaviour, is one of many measures Vermont prisons have taken to limit outbreaks of COVID-19.

The virus has not killed any prisoners in Vermont, but several men have died while in so-called quarantine cells, including Michael Dupont, 36, who killed himself in St. Johnsbury jail days after being detained in December 2020.

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Another man attempted suicide at the Northern State Correctional Center in Newport that year. Most recently, Michael Cornell died on Jan. 1 of an accidental overdose at Northern State while in quarantine following an outside medical appointment.

Seven days reported Cornell’s death in a March 23 cover story about the ongoing effects of the pandemic in Vermont prisons, including continued outbreaks and harsh restrictions for those incarcerated. Between November 2021 and March 2022, prisoners in Vermont spent an average of one-third of the time in full solitary confinement, meaning they were confined to their cells for 23 hours and 45 minutes a day. In some cases, prisons were closed entirely because the Department of Corrections was understaffed.

In a news release, the department said prison workers found Dunkling unresponsive around 9:30 p.m. Sunday night. Staff attempted to save lives, but Dunkling was later pronounced dead in jail.

Staff are required to check prisoners held in quarantine units every 15 minutes, per department policy.

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Dunkling’s death will be investigated by police, the Vermont Prisoners’ Rights Department and Office of the State’s Public Defender’s Office.

Corrections Commissioner Nicholas Deml said Dunkling’s death is “a reminder of the human needs that fall upon our work”.

“The toll of the pandemic on mental and emotional well-being is extremely apparent in our department, where we see firsthand the impact the pandemic has had on both our staff and those in our care. and custody,” Deml said in a statement. “We will continue to focus our attention on the mental and emotional health needs of our prison population and staff as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and move into our future.

Corrections recently put in place a phased plan to ease restrictions related to COVID-19. The latest version of the guidelines, dated March 28, maintains the 14-day quarantine system for new arrivals, even in less restrictive phases.

The department is currently revising its intake quarantine protocol “as part of its phased approach to reopen Vermont correctional facilities and to minimize the impact of these protocols on the mental, emotional and physical well-being of those in custody. and guard of the department”. Monday’s statement said.

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