85 Vermont inmates in Mississippi prison test positive for Covid-19

Published: 8/2/2020 9:12:09 PM
Modified: 8/2/2020 9:12:07 PM

Early test results have found that 85 Vermont inmates held at a privately run prison in Mississippi are positive for COVID-19, according to the state Department of Corrections.

“At this time, tests are still pending,” the Vermont corrections department said in a news release Sunday afternoon. “Numbers are preliminary and may change.”

Mass testing of the 219 out-of-state inmates took place late last week after six prisoners who returned Tuesday to Vermont from the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Miss., tested positive for the coronavirus after their arrival in the state.

Another Vermont inmate at the Mississippi prison also tested for COVID-19. The facility is operated by CoreCivic, one of the largest private prison operators in the country.

Rachel Feldman, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections, said Sunday afternoon that additional test results remain pending, but wouldn’t say exactly how many remain outstanding.

“We’re going to release everything as soon as every single test is back and as soon as our team has cross-referenced them, which will happen pretty quickly,” she said.

“Not trying to hide anything,” Feldman added, “just trying to make sure we have it right, and this is what we’re confident in saying right now.”

James Baker, Vermont’s interim corrections commissioner, said in a statement Sunday that corrections staff is working with CoreCivic officials “around the clock” to address the situation.

Matthew Valerio, Vermont’s defender general, said Sunday afternoon he expected that 85 figure to rise, perhaps significantly.

“My guess is that number will probably go up just based on the virulence of the virus,” said Valerio, whose department includes the state’s Prisoners’ Rights Office. “I don’t anticipate many people will be spared given the living conditions, everyone is right on top of each other.”

Feldman said Vermont inmates in Mississippi who had positive test results had been placed in a separate housing unit from other inmates. Vermont inmates, she said, had been held in two housing units at the prison, and now a third unit is being used to hold those who have tested positive for COVID-19.

“At this time,” she added, “there are no inmates in Mississippi who we believe are symptomatic at the point that they would require medical attention.”

Vermont contracted with the private prison company nearly two years ago to house inmates it doesn’t have capacity to hold in facilities in-state.

The Vermont Department of Corrections is currently working to renew its contract with CoreCivic, though there are state officials and organizations, such as the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who have argued strongly against sending inmates to an out-of-state prison, particularly to one operated by a for-profit company,

James Lyall, executive director of the Vermont ACLU, on Sunday called the situation with the large number of Vermont prisoners testing positive for COVID-19 in Mississippi “preventable and predictable.”

He also reiterated comments he made Friday after hearing that six inmates tested positive for COVID-19 upon returning to Vermont from the Mississippi prison.

“The Scott administration’s stubborn refusal to take a more proactive approach to the threat of COVID-19 in prison settings,” Lyall said, “reflects the same indifference, the same callous indifference, to lives of people we’ve seen over and over again.”

Valerio, the state’s defender general, said Sunday that while the Vermont Department of Corrections has done a good job to contain and prevent the spread of COVID-19 in facilities in-state, he doesn’t believe the same situation exists for the out-of-state inmates in Mississippi.

“The reports that we were getting was that CoreCivic was not completely on top of it,” Valerio said, adding that inmates had reported staff moving between housing units and a lax attitude to the wearing of masks inside the facility.

Ryan Gustin, CoreCivic’s public affairs manager, said in an email Sunday that the six inmates returned last week to Vermont from Mississippi were screened before leaving that facility, and none showed any symptoms for COVID-19.

“Once we learned of these positive cases, we placed the housing pods that these inmates were transferred from on a medical isolation/quarantine status,” he added. “On-site medical staff are performing twice-daily symptom and temperature checks on the Vermont inmates.”

He also said that CoreCivic follows guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and face masks have also been provided to staff and inmates and alcohol-based hand sanitizer has also been available to Vermont inmates.

Earlier this year, a lawsuit brought on behalf of a Vermont inmate had called for additional Covid-19 precautions to prevent the spread of the virus at the Mississippi facility.

As of last week, since the global pandemic began, a total of 48 in-state prisoners had tested positive for the coronavirus.

According to the Mississippi Department of Health, as of last week, a total of 14 inmates at the Mississippi prison in Tutwiler have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic started. CoreCivic also reported 27 staff members who had tested positive.

Feldman, speaking Sunday afternoon, said that CoreCivic had a different protocol for testing inmates in the Mississippi facility than Vermont has had for in-state prisoners. In Mississippi, she said, only inmates showing symptoms of the virus are tested.

Vermont has done mass testing of all inmates and staff at each of its six in-state prisons.

It wasn’t until the six inmates returned to Vermont from Mississippi and all tested positive that Vermont corrections officials called for the mass testing of all of the out-of-state prisoners in the CoreCivic facility.

Vermont’s in-state inmate population has declined in recent months as steps have been taken to keep people out of correctional facilities due to the coronavirus pandemic.

At the beginning of the year the state’s prisoner population topped 1,600, and it is currently down to a little over 1,400.

Asked if the latest test results would prompt the state Department of Corrections to bring Vermont inmates back to in-state facilities, Feldman replied that is not an easy task to carry out.

“That does present multiple challenges,” Feldman said. “I will not say it’s not included in the discussion, but the reality of that and what that would do to capacity in-state, as well as the risk-exposure in state, could be substantial.”

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