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At Least 85 Vermont Inmates Test Positive For COVID-19 At Private Prison In Mississippi

Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility
Rogelio V. Solis
Associated Press File
Nearly 40% of the inmates Vermont incarcerates at a private prson in Mississippi have tested positive for COVID-19.

This story has been updated.

At least 85 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility, the private for-profit prison Vermont contracts in Mississippi, according to an emailed statement released by the Deparment of Corrections on Sunday. 

The infected inmates constitute nearly 40% of the 219 inmates Vermont incarcerates at the prison, which is owned by CoreCivic. Their ranks will likely grow as additional test results come in.

The state of Vermont tested most of the remaining 219 inmates after six inmates tested positive for COVID-19after returning to Vermont from Mississippi last week. Eight inmates refused the test, and were placed in medical isolation according to DOC policies.

After an outbreak at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in Franklin County in April, DOC began ongoing universal testing of all prison staff and inmates in Vermont. That testing did not include those held in Mississippi.

Vermont inmates held in Mississippi tend to have longer sentences and to be older than those held in-state.

More from VPR: Six Inmates Return From Mississippi Prison With COVID-19

"This was all too predictable," said James Lyall, Executive Director of the Vermont ACLU, when he learned of the potential outbreak last week. "We have been calling on DOC and the Scott administration to test all incarcerated Vermonters, including those incarcerated out of state, for months."

“Testing is only one part of the response to COVID-19 inside facilities,” Interim Commissioner Jim Baker said in the statement. “Teams from VTDOC and CoreCivic are working around the clock to implement the Vermont model of mitigation at TCCF and ensure the continued safety of the inmates housed there.”

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tallahatchie County has over seven times the rate of COVID-19 as Chittenden County, Vermont's most infected county. 

DOC officials have announced plans to extend its two-year contract with CoreCivic through September 2021, despite a historic drop in in-state incarceration rates during COVID-19.

Update 8/3/20 7:21 p.m.

During a call with reporters on Monday, Commissioner Baker’s assistant layed out the numbers:  Out of 114 inmates with valid test results, only 30 did not have the virus. 74 percent had tested positive to date. The remaining 90 tests would be forthcoming.

Commissioner Baker called the situation a “mass outbreak.” 

“Hindsight being 2020, there’s a few things I wish coulda been done,” he said.

Baker said he had not asked CoreCivic for widespread testing of Vermont’s inmates in Mississippi until last week, when he learned an outbreak there was likely. After that, Baker said, it took his team two days to work out the logistics. “The Mississippi protocol is to test symptomatic patients,” not asymptomatic people, Baker said when asked why he had not made efforts to test out-of-state inmates earlier. 

More from Vermont Edition: ‘I’m Very Concerned’: DOC Commissioner Warns COVID Cases Likely To Rise In Mississippi Prison

Should any Vermont inmates need critical care, Baker said his office had confirmed there were intensive care beds available at a hospital in Memphis. He noted his office is considering transporting some particularly vulnerable inmates back to Vermont. He said 53 inmates in Mississippi had been identified as being over 60 years old and therefore at “high-risk” for complications from COVID-19. 

Vermont’s contract with CoreCivic expires in October. Before the outbreak, Baker had been in the process of extending the contract for another year. On Monday, he said he would wait to “think about our relationship with CoreCivic” until things in Mississippi settle down.

Some advocates are eager to have that conversation, immediately. 

“Vermont has failed to keep people incarcerated out of state safe, again and again,” said Tom Dalton, Executive Director of Vermonters For Criminal Justice Reform. “It’s time for us to throw in the towel and bring them home.” Dalton said he believes Vermont DOC can make room for the Mississippi inmates despite additional space needed for quarantining and isolating inmates during COVID-19. “I think that there are a lot of people who are incarcerated in Vermont who could be safely released,” he said, to make room. 

Matt Valerio, Vermont’s Defender General, was more critical of CoreCivic than Vermont’s DOC. “Even post-lawsuit, they said that they adopted CDC guidelines,” he said, referencing a settlement his office had negotiated regarding protections for inmates, “you know, adopting them and maintaining them and actually living them are different things.” Valerio said he didn’t see a realistic way for the Vermont inmates to return to state facilities, because of the additional space now required for social distancing. 

“I will say, compared to other private entities that we’ve used out-of-state, CoreCivic has been, probably, one of the better ones.”

Correction 8/3/2020 4:48 p.m. A previous version of this story stated that all 219 Vermont inmates had been tested. In fact, 8 refused to be tested.

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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