Jim Kenyon: Outbreak at Miss. prison shows how we view Vt. inmates

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 8/8/2020 9:39:50 PM
Modified: 8/8/2020 9:39:48 PM

For the 17 years that her son has been in prison, Linda Hopkins has counted on getting a weekend phone call from him. If for no other reason, he checks in to let her know that he’s doing OK.

Last weekend, her cellphone didn’t ring.

Her son, Eric Daley, is 1,400 miles away — one of the 219 Vermont inmates locked up at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Miss.

“It was kind of strange that he didn’t call,” Hopkins told me. “I just had to hope that he was all right. I knew Mississippi was a hot spot.”

Over the past week, Mississippi has averaged nearly 1,000 new coronavirus cases a day. As of Friday, the state had recorded at least 65,436 cases and 1,848 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a New York Times database.

There was also alarming news out of the Vermont Department of Corrections. Last Sunday, the DOC reported that 85 Vermont inmates held at the private prison had tested positive for COVID-19. By Wednesday, the number had climbed to 147.

Mass testing at the prison began in late July, but without her son’s weekly phone call, Hopkins couldn’t find out if he was among the 67% of Vermont inmates who had tested positive for the potentially fatal infectious disease.

Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio, who oversees the state’s Prisoners’ Rights Office, told VtDigger, “I don’t anticipate many people will be spared given the living conditions; everyone is right on top of each other.”

Other parts of the 2,700-bed prison house inmates from Mississippi and South Carolina. The U.S. Marshals Service also sends detainees to the prison, located in the northwestern section of the country’s poorest state.

A spokesman for CoreCivic, the for-profit prison management company that runs Tallahatchie, wouldn’t tell me if inmates in other parts of the prison had also tested positive.

At a news conference last week, Gov. Phil Scott was asked why the state hadn’t pushed CoreCivic to do more widespread testing earlier.

“Looking back, we should have pressed harder on them to do this, but it was just a shortcoming on our part,” Scott said. “We should have seen this coming.”

In this case, the governor can afford to fault his own administration. No matter how bad the COVID-19 outbreak gets at the Mississippi prison, Scott knows that he won’t pay a price on Election Day. Inmates and their families don’t have much of a voice.

“Nobody cares,” Hopkins said. In prison, a person really is just a number.

She’s watched the DOC bounce her son between prisons in Kentucky, Michigan and Pennsylvania before sending him to Mississippi. (I met Daley during a visit to the private prison in Michigan in 2015.)

Vermont has shipped hundreds of inmates to out-of-state prisons for 20 years. The reason: The state has more inmates than its five prisons for men can hold.

But instead of investing more heavily in job training and substance disorder treatment programs to keep offenders on the street, Vermont prefers to spend millions of taxpayers dollars annually to dump inmates in faraway prisons, where state officials have little idea of what’s going on.

Why Vermont does business with Tennessee-based CoreCivic, one of the country’s largest private prison companies, is beyond me.

Along with operating about 120 prisons, CoreCivic profits handsomely from the Trump administration’s anti-migrant policies.

In 2017, the federal government paid CoreCivic and GEO Group, a Florida-based company, a combined $985 million to run immigrant detention centers, according to The Hill, a Washington news website. (On its website, CoreCivic says it doesn’t operate detention facilities for unaccompanied migrant children.)

From phone talks with Daley over the last couple of years, I get the feeling that the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility is a giant warehouse.

Inmates spend much of their time watching TV and playing video games in their cells. Daley seldom goes outdoors. At other prisons, he got into jogging, but Tallahatchie is short on exercise space, he said.

Daley, who once lived in Springfield, Vt., works in the prison’s laundry to help pay for phone calls. His mother, who lives in Swanzey, N.H., and works at a manufacturing plant, sends $100 a month or so. The money goes toward toiletries and food at the commissary. (Ramen noodles are a staple; he can only take so much of the Tallahatchie chow hall’s fried bologna.)

Daley, 40, has been in prison since he was 23. In June 2003, Daley, a small-time drug dealer, was stopped for speeding on Interstate 91 in Thetford. With 2 pounds of marijuana and some LSD in his car’s trunk, Daley panicked when Vermont State Police detained him to try to bring in a drug-sniffing dog.

Daley fled in his sports car, leading to a high-speed chase that resulted in the death of Trooper Michael Johnson, of Bradford, Vt. As I’ve written before, Daley’s actions were extremely reckless and he deserved a lengthy sentence — just not anything close to the 26-year minimum he received.

Johnson’s death as he was deploying tire-deflating spikes was an accident. And Daley was not solely at fault. Troopers had no business engaging in a chase where speeds topped 100 mph on a busy highway to catch someone for a nonviolent offense.

Last Tuesday, I got a call from Daley. Since the outbreak was discovered, Vermont inmates had only been out of their cells for 15 minutes a day, he said.

With his mother at work, Daley doubted that he could reach her during that brief window. By midweek, the window had closed completely. On Friday, DOC spokeswoman Rachel Feldman told me Vermont inmates were in lockdown and would likely be without access to pay phones until this upcoming week.

Daley asked me to relay a message to his mother: His COVID-19 test had come back negative. “Tell her not to worry,” he said.

For a mother, that’s easier said than done.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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