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People Incarcerated At Newport Prison Raise Concerns As DOC Reports 7 More COVID-19 Cases

A photo of sign in the grass, near some trees.
Lydia Brown
VPR File
Seven more people held at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total to 32.

Seven more people inside Vermont’s largest in-state prison have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total number of infected individuals to 32, the Department of Corrections announced on Wednesday. Some people held at the prison, including some of those infected, say they’re concerned about how the outbreak is being handled.

Joe Truszkowski and his cellmate are among the people who tested positive this week. They are housed in the general population unit where 23 of the 32 COVID infections have been detected.

“I’m getting some headaches, a little sore throat,” Truszkowski said Monday during a phone interview with VPR. “It ain't been too, too bad.”

It’s the second time this year that the facility has dealt with an outbreak. Nearly 180 people held in the facility caught the virus earlier this year and were stuck in their cells for 49 days while the facility was on lockdown.

More from VPR: Vt. Prisons Used Lockdowns To Slow Coronavirus, But Prisoners' Mental Health Suffered

There were indications last week that there might be another incident brewing: Corrections officials announced on Aug. 23 that two employees at the Newport prison tested positive for COVID-19. One of them had worked in the general population unit that houses 72 people.

A spokesperson, in an email to VPR at the time, said both staffers who tested positive were unvaccinated.

Almost immediately, there were signs that the virus was spreading. On Aug. 23, the same day as the employee infections were announced, a person housed in the general population unit was tested after displaying COVID symptoms. By the end of the week, four incarcerated people tested positive, and prison officials had tested all 400 or so people held at the facility.

That testing revealed another 21 infections, including Truszkowski and his cellmate. The pair have been in full lockdown since last week, meaning they are only allowed out of their cell for 15 minutes a day to shower.

Truszkowski said it’s been difficult to get basic medicine.

“Cough medicine, Tylenol, ibuprofen, they tell you to put in a med slip,” he said. “By the time you do that, you’re half way through the sickness by the time you actually get the s---.”

He said they’ve had trouble getting cleaning supplies and haven’t been able to sweep or mop their cell in more than a week. It took eight hours to get a roll of toilet paper, Truszkowski said.

“Some of them will stop and look in and ask us if we’re having fun yet and enjoy being locked down like they think it’s funny. And it’s really not — we’re locked in a cell.”
Joe Truszkowsi, incarcerated in Newport Prison

And some guards have been rude, Truszkowski said, and made fun of the situation — even though they’re the ones who are suspected of bringing in the virus.

“Some of them will stop and look in and ask us if we’re having fun yet and enjoy being locked down like they think it’s funny,” Truszkowsi said. “And it’s really not — we’re locked in a cell.”

A DOC spokesperson, in response to written questions, said it would “not be appropriate” for corrections officers to speak that way. The spokesperson also said people could buy basic medicines through the prison commissary without a medical slip.The spokesperson also wrote that the cells in the general population unit are being cleaned.

But Chris Burnor, who is housed in a different unit, is worried that officials aren’t doing enough to halt the spread.

Burnor told VPR on Tuesday that there aren’t any COVID cases among the men in his unit, and they’ve been told to practice social distancing. But he said during meal times, they’re lining up “shoulder to shoulder” to pick up meal boxes.

“It makes me nervous, I don't want that stuff, that's why I've avoided it, as well as I have,” he said in a phone interview.

More from VPR: Reporter Debrief: Gov. Scott Announces COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate For Some State Employees

Prison officials are treating meal distribution in each unit in the Newport facility differently depending on its layout and COVID status, a DOC spokesperson wrote in a statement.

Seven staffers at the Newport prison have also tested positive, though two have been cleared to return to work, a DOC spokesperson said Wednesday. Four of those who tested positive were unvaccinated, though starting Wednesday, all corrections officers are required to get a COVID shot or undergo twice-weekly testing.

More than 77% of the incarcerated population at Northern State Correctional Facility is vaccinated against COVID-19. Twenty of the incarcerated people who’ve tested positive in the current outbreak are vaccinated.

COVID-19 cases have ticked up inside most of Vermont’s correctional facilities. Data from the DOC shows there are cases among staff, incarcerated individuals, or both at all but one prison in the state.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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