Officials in Vermont placed the state’s largest prison on “modified” lockdown Wednesday after threats of violence -- and potentially a riot -- in the wake of ongoing demonstrations in Baltimore prompted by the death of Freddie Gray. Mike Touchette, director of facilities for the state’s Department of Corrections, said an inmate’s anonymous message, left on the DOC’s voicemail, "suggested there could be general disturbances in the facility."

Touchette would not elaborate on the specifics of the message, but he added that “there was innuendo that it was tied to what was taking place in Baltimore.” 

The prison, Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, may seem like an unlikely staging ground for a riot connected to Baltimore’s unrest: The medium-security facility is situated on a bucolic farm road about 65 miles north of Montpelier, near the Canadian border.  

Vermont prison Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, Vermont. Photo:

However, Touchette said inmates have been closely watching news coverage of the events -- and it has struck a nerve within the prison.

Gray’s death on April 19 has reignited an already flaming-hot national discussion about police brutality, particularly in cases against young black men. Besides Baltimore, there have been protests in New York, Washington, D.C., Boston and Minneapolis. 

Touchette says another correctional facility in Vermont also was placed on modified lockdown on Wednesday, though the prison returned to “normal operations” on Wednesday evening. 

Since Wednesday’s lockdown, which was first reported by Vermont Public Radio, Touchette has increased the number of guards at the facility. He also has limited the movements of the prisoners; meals, for instance, were being served in limited shifts with smaller groups of inmates. 

His staff also has conducted interviews with nearly 500 prisoners to assess attitudes about what’s happening in Baltimore. “Ninety-nine percent or more [of the inmates] are suggesting that it's concerning,” Touchette says. “But," he adds, "it's not having a detriment on the safety [of the facility]." As a result of his interviews with inmates, Touchette expects to remove the lockdown within the next 24 hours.