Crime and Justice

With tests pending, positive cases of Covid-19 at St. Albans prison continue to rise

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Interim Commissioner of Corrections Jim Baker, left, listens as Human Services Secretary Mike Smith discusses the conditions at the South Burlington women’s prison before the Senate Institutions Committee on Jan. 8, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

With some testing still pending, the Vermont Department of Corrections reported Friday, April 10, an uptick in positive cases of Covid-19 among inmates and staff at the Northwest State Correctional Facility.

In a press briefing Friday evening, James Baker, interim corrections commissioner, said there are currently a total 32 inmates and 14 staff members who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus at the St. Albans prison.

All inmates and “available” staff at the facility were tested this week after it was announced Monday that an inmate and three staff members had tested positive for Covid-19. 

The department reported Thursday that it did 328 tests. Baker said he expects the pending test results to be released soon. He did not have the number of tests completed as of Friday evening. Thursday’s completed test number was 167.

The update from the corrections department comes after it released partial results Thursday evening

Four inmates have remained at the Northwest State Correctional Facility, Baker said, in quarantine rooms.

Baker said the Northwest State Correctional Facility is in lockdown — meaning inmates stay in cells with meals and medication brought to them — and will remain that way for two weeks of quarantine. The state’s other prisons are currently on “modified lockdowns,” which mean inmates are allowed out of their cells in controlled groups and settings. 

“My staff is fearful that they’re going to get sick. Their families are fearful,” Baker said. “We didn’t expect this big a number coming out of Northwest.”

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Baker said the 14 staff members have been told to self quarantine at their homes and that employees at the other prisons are being screened for temperature and surveyed on their health as they come and go from work.

Members of the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee speak with inmates at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in November. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Baker said Friday that 28 of the 32 total inmates who have tested positive for Covid-19 have been moved to the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury, which the state turned into a medical surge facility for prisoners and currently can accommodate 56 ill inmates.

So far, all inmates from three of the nine living units in the prison have tested negative. The department and the state’s epidemiology lab are working to discover how the infection was introduced to the facility. 

The 55 prisoners at the St. Johnsbury facility had been moved to the work camp on the same prison campus before the 28 coronavirus positive inmates arrived, according to the department.

Advocacy groups for prisoners, including the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, have called on the corrections department and the Scott administration to release as many inmates “as possible” in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

As of Friday, Vermont’s inmate population was 1,419 —  a drop from the 1,642 prisoners on March 13. That number has gone down mostly as a result of fewer people coming into the facility, through arrest or probation and furlough violations. 

Mike Smith, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services, said the release of inmates in an “at-risk” category should not be done without consideration for victims of crime. 

“There are some hardcore criminals in here that we are not going to release to the public,” Smith said, adding that there are over-60-year-olds who are inprisoned for murder, attempted murder, sex crimes and manslaughter.

“These are people who are dangerous to our society,” Smith stressed during a Scott administration press conference Friday. “We aren’t going to release those people.”

Baker agreed with Smith and said, “We are starting to get into much tougher conversations about who we should release.”

The Vermont State Employees’ Association called on Gov. Phil Scott Friday to mandate coronavirus testing for all individuals in state facilities.

Dave Bellini
Dave Bellini, the president of the Vermont State Employees’ Association. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

Dave Bellini, the president of the VSEA, wrote to Scott saying that many state employees, especially those working at prisons and other “24/7” facilities, are “scared right now that a person, co-worker, patient or resident in their facility could have the virus.”

“VSEA calls on you today to immediately mandate coronavirus testing for every employee, inmate, resident or patient currently working or housed in a Vermont 24/7 facility,” Bellini wrote.

Smith said there will only be universal testing if a staff member or inmate shows symptoms or tests positive for Covid-19 in the other 24/7 facilities.

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Under these circumstances, universal testing for Covid-19 will be available for nursing homes, correction facilities, as well as assisted living and other facilities.

“We will test as soon as we have reason to do so,” Smith said. “The fact remains, our testing capabilities are not unlimited.”

“We have not had staff or inmates test positive in any other facilities, but we stand ready to universally test,” Smith said. 

As of Friday evening, there were three negatives and one pending test at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility.

“I wish I had all the tests in the world,” Smith added. “But I don’t.”

The governor, during his Friday press briefing, addressed the outbreak at the prison and thanked the public health nurses and the epidemiology lab “who worked through the night to test and turn results around for that entire population.” 

“While this outbreak is serious, there is no doubt their hard work will help us better address it to keep employees and inmates safe,” Scott said.

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Kit Norton

About Kit

Kit Norton is the general assignment reporter at VTDigger. He is originally from eastern Vermont and graduated from Emerson College in 2017 with a degree in journalism. In 2016, he was a recipient of The Society of Environmental Journalists' Emerging Environmental Journalist award. Kit has worked at PRI's weekly radio environmental program, Living on Earth, and has written for the online news site Truthout.

Email: [email protected]

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