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Mississippi Inmate Settles With State Over COVID-19 Protections

Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility
Rogelio V. Solis
Associated Press File
After a lawsuit was filed, the Vermont Department of Corrections began providing Vermont inmates held in Mississippi with masks and alcohol-based hand sanitizer, along with taking other precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

On April 16, I asked Harry Norway if the pandemic had changed much about life in prison in Mississippi. Norway is one of over 200 men incarcerated by the state of Vermont at the private prison, run by the company CoreCivic. 

“Nothing’s changed,” he said. “Nothing’s changed.” 

Norway said he and his fellow inmates didn’t have masks, and weren’t allowed to cover their faces. He said he didn’t have access to cleaning supplies for most of the day, and he wasn’t sure what was available would be effective against coronavirus. “We’re allowed to clean our rooms from 5 o’clock 'til 7 o’clock,” he said, but “we don’t get no bleach.” The hand sanitizer, he said, still did not have alcohol in it. 

More from VPR: Vermont Inmates Dispute Officials' Narrative About Hand Sanitizer

Now, much of this has changed.

The same week Norway spoke to VPR, another Mississippi inmate, Brian Butler, 63, sued the Vermont Department of Corrections, demanding the same protections the state said it had provided people incarcerated in-state. The suit, filed by the Prisoner’s Rights Office of the Vermont Defender General, cited the common benefits clause of Vermont’s constitution, guaranteeing the right to a government that does not favor one person over another (the same clause cited in Vermont’s landmark gay rights case, which brought about civil unions in Vermont). 

"It is kind of horrifying that that request either hadn't been made before, or if it was made, it wasn't fulfilled until they were under the cloud of litigation." - Emily Tredeau, Prisoner's Rights Office

Days after the Prisoner's Rights Office filed the lawsuit, a third Mississippi inmate told VPR the prison had begun requiring staff to wear masks and providing the cleaning crew with bleach-based cleaners. “They've suddenly got it in their heads, ‘hey, if we sanitize things, it's a good thing,” he said. The inmate asked not to be named, fearing retribution for speaking with the press.

Prisoner's Rights Office supervising attorney Emily Tredeau said since the lawsuit was filed, DOC also began implementing the other requests her client made, including additional monitoring of staff and inmates for symptoms, and the provision of alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Now both parties have agreed to dismiss the case.

The agreement notes that “For those requests for relief that were not already implemented,” Vermont DOC “made a courtesy request” to its contractor, CoreCivic, which agreed to implement the changes. 

"It was both encouraging to me that like — okay, once they asked, it can happen,” said Tredeau. “But it is kind of horrifying that that request either hadn't been made before, or if it was made, it wasn't fulfilled until they were under the cloud of litigation.”

More from VPR: How Are Vermont Prisons Handling COVID-19?

Commissioner Jim Baker said the changes to protocol at the Mississippi facility weren’t the result of the lawsuit. “To suggest that the Department was not proactive in ensuring that CoreCivic was applying CDC guidelines to Vermont inmates would be disingenuous,” he said in an email. “DOC has a team of six people who oversee the wellbeing of Vermont’s inmates in Mississippi. That team, since the beginning, has communicated with CoreCivic concerning the wellbeing of the inmates in Mississippi and measures that must be taken to protect against introduction of the virus to the facility.” 

Emily Corwin reported investigative stories for VPR until August 2020. In 2019, Emily was part of a two-newsroom team which revealed that patterns of inadequate care at Vermont's eldercare facilities had led to indignities, injuries, and deaths. The consequent series, "Worse for Care," won a national Edward R. Murrow award for investigative reporting, and placed second for a 2019 IRE Award. Her work editing VPR's podcast JOLTED, about an averted school shooting, and reporting NHPR's podcast Supervision, about one man's transition home from prison, made her a finalist for a Livingston Award in 2019 and 2020. Emily was also a regular reporter and producer on Brave Little State, helping the podcast earn a National Edward R. Murrow Award for its work in 2020. When she's not working, she enjoys cross country skiing and biking.
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