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‘Gov. Scott Owns This’: ACLU On Northern State Correctional Facility COVID-19 Outbreak

A photo of jail cell bars.
Rich Pedroncelli
Associated Press File
Late Tuesday night, the department announced that 127 inmates at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport have tested positive in the last week, as well as 10 staff members.

Vermont is now facing the largest COVID-19 outbreak within a correctional facility since the pandemic began. Despite the implementation of public safety measuresinside Department of Corrections' facilities, advocates say the state's decision not to prioritize incarcerated people for vaccines puts them at risk.

Late Tuesday night, the department announced that 127 inmates at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport have tested positive in the last week, as well as 10 staff members.

The news came hours after the Scott administration announced it was expanding vaccination access to about 100,000 Vermonters, including teachers, school staff and corrections staff, among others, but not to incarcerated people.

That has advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, concerned, especially since nationwide, incarcerated individuals are both more likely to contract the virus and die from it. According to data analysis by the Marshall Project, incarcerated people in Vermont are 7.1 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than other Vermonters.  

The DOC is expected to address the situation at the Northern State Correction Facility on Thursday. Meanwhile, the facility remains on lockdown.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with James Lyall, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont about the state's handling of the pandemic inside correctional facilities. They began their conversation talking about the outbreak at the Newport facility and whether it was preventable. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

James Lyall: At this point, Gov. Scott owns this. He could have prevented this outbreak, just as he could have prevented earlier outbreaks and he could still take action to prevent future outbreaks in Vermont prisons by vaccinating all of the people in these facilities and by taking steps to safely release more Vermonters from these facilities, where they are at heightened risk of harm.

Henry Epp: You've been calling for those things for a while now. The population in Vermont prisons did drop significantly last year. Why do you think it should go down more at this point?

Because people in congregate settings, including prisons, can't socially distance. The science is very clear on that. It's not just a hypothetical risk. We've now seen multiple major outbreaks that we haven't seen really in any other setting. It's really only a matter of luck that nobody has died yet.

More From Brave Little State: How Are Vermont Prisons Handling COVID-19?

So, yes, the prison population is down, but that is not because of the Scott administration.

Gov. Scott has taken no action, executive action or proposed or supported legislative action to do more to further reduce the number of people in prison and has really provided no coherent explanation for ignoring the science in this particular context.

The fact that incarcerated Vermonters are at heightened risk, that risk extends to all Vermont communities. And again, it's not hypothetical. We keep seeing these outbreaks and we're going to continue to see more. The inaction at this point is just extremely reckless and it's inhumane.

"Why apply a science-based, proactive approach to the pandemic response outside of our prisons, but have a double standard and not follow the science for people inside our prisons?" - ACLU of Vermont Executive Director James Lyall

Is your organization hearing from specific inmates who are at the Newport prison right now?

We're contacted by incarcerated Vermonters and their families regularly. Over the entire year of this pandemic they've consistently expressed great concern at the neglect and the lack of information and the risk that they and their loved ones are being subjected to. We've been trying to voice those concerns ourselves on their behalf.

This is shameful. Vermonters are a compassionate and responsible people. We know that we're in this pandemic together.

We need to reject the underlying punitive mindset that I think is at the bottom of this, that runs through so much of our criminal justice system and our approach to incarcerated people. We need to recognize and act on the full humanity of all the people in our prisons, especially right now, and Gov. Scott has not done that.

More from Vermont Edition: The State Has Expanded Vaccination To Include People In Select Professions. Here's What You Should Know

The Scott administration did announce on Tuesday that it will be vaccinating or prioritizing vaccinations for some public safety officials, including corrections staff, as I understand it. Do you think that's a step in the right direction?

Yeah, but the contrast is pretty stark. Why prioritize one subset of the population that lives and works in Vermont prisons and not the other? Why apply a science-based, proactive approach to the pandemic response outside of our prisons, but have a double standard and not follow the science for people inside our prisons?

The people in our prisons are members of our families and our communities. There are 6,000 Vermont children who have incarcerated parents. None of these people were sentenced to suffer or die in a pandemic.

Vermonters expect compassionate and responsible government and they're not getting that in the response to the pandemic in Vermont prisons.

Well, in terms of your organization's role, beyond advocating for more vaccinations of incarcerated people, are there other ways the ACLU is pushing for more action on this? I mean, is there any litigation action in the works?

You know, we can't always speak to specific litigation. Certainly, ACLU affiliates around the country have deployed a variety of strategies. And we have seen governors and legislatures around the country take action, sometimes forced through litigation, sometimes voluntarily, to reduce the risk.

More From VPR: Vermont Inmates Say They Aren't Informed About COVID-19 Cases Behind Bars

But we need people to speak up. If they are concerned with the continuing outbreaks in Vermont's prison system, they need to call their elected officials, call the governor and tell them to take action.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp@TheHenryEpp.

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Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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