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Nearly 70% Of Vermont Inmates At Mississippi Prison Have COVID-19

Of the Vermont inmates who agreed to be tested at a private prison in Mississippi, 70% had COVID-19.
Rogelio V. Solis
Associated Press File
Of the Vermont inmates who agreed to be tested at a private prison in Mississippi, 70% had COVID-19.

VPR's Mitch Wertlieb talks with interim Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker Thursday morning.

Updated 11:30 a.m. 8/7/2020

Some 146 of Vermont's inmates held in Mississippi — 69% of those tested — have COVID-19.

Interim Commissioner of Corrections Jim Baker told reporters Wednesday he had not previously asked CoreCivic, the company Vermont contracts to incarcerate 219 inmates, to test Vermont’s inmates or its staff for COVID-19.

That'seven though Vermont DOC tests all staff and in-state inmates regularly. 

“What I was briefed on is that CoreCivic was following CDC guidelines for facilities such as jails,” Baker said. “In hindsight, I should have been more inquisitive.”

More from VPR: Officials Say State Failed To Ensure Private Prison Tested All Vermont Inmates

Eight inmates refused the test and are in medical isolation. Another two tests are still being processed. 

“I consider this a full-fledged, serious emergency,” Baker said.

He also noted another inmate had tested positive at Marble Valley Correctional Facility in Rutland while in quarantine. That inmate has been transferred to medical isolation.

Vermont officials first suspected the outbreak at Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility after six inmates tested positive for the virus while in quarantine at Marble Valley after being transported there from Mississippi.

Now, Baker said, he is not only asking that all CoreCivic staff be tested, but making clear his conviction that the facility’s other inmates should be tested too. 

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

The commissioner didn’t keep the blame for himself, however.  Best practices “clearly weren’t being followed there,” he said of the Mississippi prison.

When asked which practices were not being followed, Baker declined to answer. He said he was “taken aback by the fact that CoreCivic had no relationship with the Mississippi Department of Health.”

In response, Baker announced a facilities and operations team from Vermont’s DOC will travel to the Mississippi facility Thursday to review the prison’s COVID-19 protocols. He added Dr. Scott Strenio, the Medicaid medical director for Vermont Health Access, will also visit the prison, to review its medical operations and the Vermont inmates’ symptoms.

Strenio recently added the role of medical director for the Vermont DOC to his responsibilties at Vermont Health Access.

More from VPR: Commissioner: Death Of Vermont Inmate A Result Of Systemic Failures

“For months, the ACLU has called on DOC to test all incarcerated Vermonters, including those held out of state, and those calls have been ignored,” Vermont ACLU Executive Director James Lyall said in an email this week.

Lyall and other criminal justice advocates have called the outbreak "proof" that Vermont’s out-of-state inmates ought to be brought home.

Asked if such a move was likely, Baker responded: “Everything’s under consideration."

Baker told VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb in an interview Thursday that the outbreak had led to a "breakdown in trust” with CoreCivic.

“But I have to say that there wouldn't be any way that we could bring all of the inmates back,” he said. “Even bringing any inmates back is going to be very challenging to our system here, because, you know, it takes a lot of energy, focused effort and resources to deal with the pandemic here in Vermont.  And part of our strategy has been all along, is keeping the population down in Vermont in order for us to keep it thinned out for better management of social distancing and keeping the facilities clean, etc.”

If Vermont did bring back some inmates from Mississippi, Baker said there was a “small window” between when those individuals tested positive for the coronavirus and when their health begins to “turn.”

“Those conversations are ongoing, and we’ll talk more about it once I get a report back from Dr. Strenio on the scene down in Mississippi,” Baker said.

In the meantime, the corrections commissioner said the state would “resend” more people down to Mississippi to oversee care of Vermont inmates there if necessary.

“Especially for the families of the loved ones, I want them to hear, loud and clear, that this is not a one-time conversation with CoreCivic,” Baker said. “We have very high expectations of what they're going to do to provide care for the individuals from Vermont in that facility in Mississippi.”

Update 2:35 p.m. 8/6/2020 This story was updated with a new interview between VPR's Mitch Wertlieb and interim Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker.

Update 11:30 a.m. 8/7/2020 This story was updated to reflect new information from interim Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker that an audit showed 146 inmates tested positive for COVID-19, not 147.

Copyright 2020 Vermont Public

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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.
Sam held multiple positions at Vermont Public Radio for several years, including managing editor of the award-winning programVermont Edition, and morning news editor.
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