Crime and Justice

St. Johnsbury leaders upset with move of Covid-19 inmates to prison in town

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James Baker
Interim Corrections Commissioner James Baker in a videoconference with the St. Johnsbury selectboard on Monday.

St. Johnsbury officials are demanding that the state corrections department take more steps to prevent the spread of Covid-19 after what the town manager termed a “reckless” decision to move so many inmates who recently tested for the coronavirus to a prison in the town.

At a videoconference meeting Monday night of the town’s selectboard, James Baker, interim corrections commissioner, told the panel he didn’t expect the surge in Covid-19 inmates to happen as it did last week.

“Those numbers surprised us,” he said. “We didn’t expect 30 like we were hit with right out of the chute last week.” 

Twenty-seven inmates who had been held at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans were moved late last week to the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury after testing positive for the coronavirus.

Space in the St. Johnsbury jail had earlier been freed up by the corrections department as a facility to house inmates who have tested positive for Covid-19. Many of the inmates who had been at that jail were moved into a work camp on the same prison campus. 

Town officials aren’t happy that so many prisoners testing positive for Covid-19 have been moved into a prison in their community so fast. Chad Whitehead, St. Johnsbury town manager, sent a letter to Gov. Phil Scott shortly after that move took place. 

“To increase Caledonia County’s infected population over night by a factor of 4 is reckless and dangerous,” Whitehead wrote, referring to the seven coronavirus cases that had been previously identified in the county at that time. 

“We are deeply concerned,” Whitehead wrote, “that all the planning that we have put in place to take care of our community was just undone and we have lost our resources to serve the entire State’s correctional population without consideration of our public.”

The town manager added, “I am asking you to not allow any additional inmates be sent to St Johnsbury without assurances that appropriate resources be made available such as a medical surge facility, PPE and staffing.”

In the letter, Whitehead wrote that he was contacted by DOC staff by phone about a week earlier letting him know that it intended to use the St. Johnsbury facility as a “surge” location as a precaution if a coronavirus outbreak occurred at a prison in the correctional system. 

Whitehead added in the letter that he passed that information along to the selectboard. The town manager wrote he learned from a Facebook post last Thursday night that more than two dozen Covid-19 prisoners would be coming to the St. Johnsbury facility from the St. Albans prison. 

“The decision to make this site a surge facility did not include any conversation from the Municipal level,” Whitehead wrote to the governor, “and I understand that during the State of Emergency, sometimes those decisions need to be made at the State level but we are taking a lot of heat over this from our residents.”

A sign shows the way to the Northeast Correctional Center in St. Johnsbury. Photo by Justin Trombly/VTDigger

The town manager asked that “assistance” be provided to ensure that the local ambulance and emergency services have enough resources to also serve residents. 

“Additionally,” Whitehead wrote, “I also ask that all staff that work at the St Johnsbury surge site be mandated to quarantine themselves from the public and only travel from the Comfort Inn to the Facility and back as long as there are infected patients being cared for.”

Whitehead, during the meeting Monday, struck a more conciliatory tone than in the letter, talking about the importance of not looking back during this time of emergency, but to now “look forward and move ahead.”

Jeffrey Moore, a selectboard member, also thanked the corrections officials for taking part in the meeting Monday night, and working to address their concerns.  

“It’s been a stressful few days as you can imagine for the board,” Moore said, “especially for our town manager who has probably fielded more calls than he cares to field.”

Mike Smith, secretary of the state Agency of Human Service, acknowledged during a press conference with Gov. Phil Scott earlier Monday that due to how fast circumstances have been moving that communications can be hard to keep up.

“As we look to handle all populations in a safe and responsible and caring manner, do we get everything completely right? Probably not,” Smith said.

Baker, Vermont’s interim corrections commissioner, in a response letter to the town wrote that due to the crisis circumstance brought on by Covid-19, the corrections department has had to make quick decisions and act swiftly.

“But I assure you we are not putting the residents of St. Johnsbury at risk,” the commissioner wrote.

The St. Johnsbury facility was selected as a place to isolate Covid-19 inmates based on its size and number of prisoners there, allowing for space to be freed up.

“All of our surge plans have been designed with a ‘worst case’ scenario in mind,” the commissioner wrote. “We did not realize how quickly and completely we would need to activate our surge plan until late in the day on Thursday, April 9.”

The corrections department has also notified the Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury that it is working on a plan that should an inmate at the jail require hospitalization that person would be taken to the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington for care, according to Baker.

Currently, Baker said, the inmates are asymptomatic for the coronavirus.

There were 32 inmates and 16 staff members at the St. Albans prison who tested positive for the coronavirus following blanket testing at the facility last week. 

Of those 32 inmates, 27 have been moved to the St. Johnsbury facility, while three remain at the Northwest prison in St. Albans. 

Northwest State Correctional Facility. Photo by Cory Dawson/VTDigger

One of those inmates stayed at that facility because he had already been placed in a negative pressure room at the Northwest prison and the other two had their tests come back positive after the initial move of the other inmates had already been made, according to Alan Cormier, corrections department facilities director. Both of those inmates are also in negative pressure rooms, he added. 

Also, Cormier said, one of the inmates who tested positive was released Friday and the other released Saturday.

“We couldn’t hold them legally,” he said. “The Department of Health met with those individuals to prep them for their release.” 

Roughly two dozen inmates who aren’t Covid-19 positive remain in custody at the St. Johnsbury prison, according to Baker, and they have jobs there such as food preparation. Those inmates, he added, are living in a separate portion of the prison than the inmates who have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Also, Baker said, corrections officers working in St. Johnsbury are trained and equipped with personal protective equipment.

Cormier, of the corrections department, told the selectboard Monday that workers will go through a decontamination process when leaving the facility to help prevent the spread of the virus into the community.

“Everything is restricted to an area that is outside with plenty of disinfectant for everybody,” Cormier said, adding, “We’ve got protocols and processes in place to not bring anything out of that facility.”  

Cormier said going forward the corrections department is working with superintendents of the other prison facilities to quarantine Covid-19 inmates, if possible, at their own sites. He said there is room at those facilities to quarantine a few inmates at each prison. 

But, Cormier said, he had to stop short of making any promises that more Covid-19 inmates would not be coming to St. Johnsbury facility if there were another outbreak. That facility has capacity right now for 53 Covid-19 positive prisoners, he said.

“Our goal going forward is to keep it as local as possible,” Cormier added. 

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