Crime and Justice

Police probe death of incarcerated person at St. Johnsbury prison

Northeast prison
The Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury. Vermont Department of Corrections photo

Updated April 5.

Vermont State Police are investigating the apparent suicide Sunday night of an incarcerated person at the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury.

Dustin Dunkling, 29, of St. Albans, is the third incarcerated person to die in a prison in Vermont so far this year. 

Dunkling was found unresponsive alone in a cell Sunday evening, according to state police and the state Department of Corrections. Dunkling was provided medical attention but was later pronounced dead, Vermont State Police said in a news release.

An autopsy is pending at the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Burlington to confirm the cause and manner of death, police said.

Dunkling had been booked into the jail on March 24 for a violation of probation on a charge of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child. 

Dunkling was placed in the St. Johnsbury prison, a facility for men, despite identifying during booking as a transgender woman, according to Rachel Feldman, a corrections department spokesperson.

Asked why a transgender woman would be placed in a male facility, Feldman said “there are a number of factors that determine where a person is placed, and so gender identity is one of those, safety is another. There’s some we can’t enumerate on for privacy reasons.”

Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio said Monday afternoon that his department would conduct its own investigation into Dunkling’s death. He had not yet reviewed any materials associated with the case. 

“I don’t really have much information on it now given that it happened hours ago,” Valerio said. “I only know what I’ve been told.”

Dunkling’s death follows those of Raymond Gadreault, 73, and Michael Cornell, 34, who died in the Springfield and Newport prisons, respectively.

Gadreault’s death in February was found to have been from natural causes, Vermont State Police said on Monday. Cornell died on New Year’s Day from an accidental drug overdose, according to his death certificate.

An initial press release from Vermont State Police used he/him pronouns for Dunkling. Feldman said Dunkling identified as male during previous incarcerations and “did not request the use of different pronouns” last month, despite identifying “as transgender female.”

The initial release also indicated Dunkling was found at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, but Feldman and state police later corrected the time to be 9:30 p.m.

Valerio said that Dunkling — who had recently been booked into the St. Johnsbury facility — was still in the midst of a two-week quarantine, per the corrections department’s Covid-19 protocol, before being placed in the general population.

“I will say that the two-week period of isolation and quarantine, while clearly serving a purpose for Covid, is becoming an identifiable issue, as we expected it might be for some harm incidents,” Valerio said.  

Prior to the pandemic, isolation was typically used for punishment for someone who had done something wrong during their incarceration, Valerio said.

Feldman said Monday afternoon that the department is moving toward a “phased reopening” and easing of Covid-19 restrictions.

“Facilities are going to have less Covid requirements. We aren’t ready to specify what those will be,” Feldman said.

She called quarantine “one of the best tools in our toolbelt for mitigating the Covid exposure risk for the general population.”

“However,” she said, “as we move into phased reopening, that gives us more capacity to marry the medical and mental health needs of our population.” 

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