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‘Pretty much looking at it as over,’ state official says of virus outbreak among out-of-state Vermont inmates

Published: 9/21/2020 9:40:18 PM
Modified: 9/21/2020 9:40:14 PM

Almost all of the 185 Vermont inmates in a privately run Mississippi prison who have tested positive for COVID-19 are now considered to be in recovery, according to Michael Smith, secretary of the state Agency of Human Services.

“I think we’re pretty much looking at it as over,” Smith said of the outbreak at the out-of-state prison holding some Vermont inmates. The Department of Corrections is part of the Agency of Human Services.

When the outbreak hit last month, Vermont had a total of 219 prisoners held at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in the northwest Mississippi community of Tutwiler. The facility is run by CoreCivic, one of the largest private prison operators in the country.

Of those 219 Vermont prisoners, 185 had tested positive in the outbreak, or close to 85%.

All but one of those are in “recovery,” Smith said. The inmate who has not recovered remains in quarantine, he added.

“Recovery means we’re starting to move them into the general population because we’ve seen that they’ve recovered,” Smith said Friday.

Currently, there are 211 Vermont inmates at the Mississippi prison, with eight having recently returned back to the state, Rachel Feldman, a corrections department spokesperson, said Monday.

A breakdown of those 211 Vermont inmates still in Mississippi shows: 178 in recovery; one who is in quarantine who had earlier tested COVID-19 positive; 28 who had never tested positive; and four who have refused testing and, therefore, are treated as being positive and are quarantined.

Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio, whose department includes the state’s Prisoners’ Rights Office, said Monday that while the Vermont inmates are recovering, more should have been done to prevent the outbreak from happening.

“You never know what the result is going to be when an outbreak occurs,” he said. “We have to always be vigilant and risk averse to try to prevent it.”

He added questions still remain about the future impact of COVID-19 on those inmates who tested positive. “We’re going to make sure that if there are any long-term effects they are dealt with,” Valerio said.

Across the entire CoreCivic prison in Mississippi, which holds inmates from several jurisdictions in the more than 2,000-bed facility, there have been 116 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among CoreCivic employees, Ryan Gustin, a company spokesperson, said in an email Monday.

Of that total, he added, 111 employees have recovered from the virus and have been medically cleared to return to work.

Gustin wrote that he wouldn’t release the numbers of total inmates at the facility who have tested positive for COVID-19. “Out of respect for our government partners, that information will have to come from them,” he said.

Vermont sends inmates it does not have the capacity to hold in-state to the Mississippi prison under a two-year contract with CoreCivic that is expected to expire next month.

The bill for the past year to the state was around $6 million.

The COVID-19 outbreak among the Vermont prisoners at the Mississippi facility appeared to threaten a renewal of that deal. James Baker, interim corrections commissioner, had talked of losing trust with CoreCivic concerning their response to the coronavirus.

However, after sending some Vermont corrections officials to Mississippi to get a first-hand look at the care being provided Baker said he felt “reassured.”

Smith, who earlier this month also appeared to put in doubt a renewal of the contract, said during the governor’s press conference Friday that it looks like a one-year extension of that deal seems likely.

“We’re putting different provisions to make sure we have testing and eyes on the grounds down there with video,” he said. “I expect that we will probably be renewing one year only that contract.”

Valerio said Monday he wasn’t surprised to hear that the state was looking at a one-year renewal of the contract, given that it is set to expire soon and there are few other options.

“It’s not what we’d like to see, it’s not perfect,” he said.

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