Crime and Justice

Freed inmate with Covid-19 blames DOC for his illness

Inside Northwest State Correctional Facility. Photo by Cory Dawson/VTDigger

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Michael Akey discovered he tested positive for Covid-19 one day after he was released from Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans earlier this month. He is blaming Department of Corrections officials for his exposure to the virus.

Akey said prison officials were slow to take steps to prevent the virus from spreading in the facility, even after there was reason to believe inmates had been exposed.

“They didn’t do anything to protect us until it was too late,” Akey said of corrections officials. “They didn’t start social distancing until it was too friggin’ late.”

He added, “They didn’t give us any masks until it was too late, until we were all testing positive.” 

The DOC, Akey said, offered little help after his diagnosis; since his release, Akey said he has been in and out of four different facilities to quarantine and recover from the illness. 

The 39-year-old man spoke this week by phone as one of two people in quarantine at the Holiday Inn in South Burlington, which had been set up by the state as a facility where people who had the virus, but didn’t require hospitalization, could isolate.

Before the first inmate at the St. Albans prison tested positive for the coronavirus in early April, Akey said correctional officers were not wearing masks or gloves and were still doing hand pat-downs of inmates.

When Akey was released, he said, a correctional officer led him through the prison’s booking area, where a sign advised people to take precautions before entering the space.

“There was a sign specifically saying do not enter without a Tyvek suit and a mask,” he said, referring to multiple types of virus protective equipment. “They didn’t care about me, they just said, ‘You got to go, you got to go, you got to go this way.’”  

Michael Akey
Michael Akey is in quarantine at the South Burlington Holiday Inn after being released from the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans.

Just minutes before his release, Akey said about 15 confirmed positive inmates had come through that booking area and were still in a parked van to be moved to the St. Johnsbury prison, which has been designated as an isolation facility for Covid-positive inmates.

Akey said during his stay at the St. Albans prison, inmates were more concerned about contracting the coronavirus from staff at the facility than other prisoners. Three staff members had tested positive for Covid-19 before the DOC conducted mass testing of inmates and staff at the facility. Ultimately more than 50 prisoners and staff tested positive. 

“There was a [correctional officer] that came in in the beginning of April and she was coughing all over everything, coughing all over everybody,” he said. “They should have protected us, but they didn’t.”

Interim Corrections Commissioner James Baker said Tuesday he took exception to allegations that the department didn’t care about the inmates, or take steps to protect them. 

“Let me be very clear about where Jim Baker is on the inmates that are in his custody,” Baker said. “Every single day, it’s all hands on deck, tracking every update we can both from the health department and the CDC to protect every inmate in the system.”

Baker added, “For him to make that allegation is absolutely baseless.” 

As to specific allegations raised by Akey, Baker said he would need more information, and time, before responding to each one.

“Without spending a half day researching everything he is alleging I can’t comment on it,” Baker said. “Obviously, he is making a lot of allegations that are totally out of context and without putting them in a timeline, comparing them to the decisions we were making, I can’t even respond to it.” 

Michael Akey tells his story on this week’s Deeper Dig podcast.

Akey said that on April 6 he was told by correctional staff that he had been exposed to coronavirus and placed in quarantine at the facility. 

“They told me I was potentially infected,” Akey said. He also provided a letter from the state Department of Corrections dated April 6 informing him that he had been exposed to the virus.

He said he was told by a corrections officer that his cellmate had tested positive for the coronavirus. However, that would have been two days before the state Department of Corrections issued a press release on April 8 announcing that the first prisoner at the facility had tested positive.  

“That just tells me they knew he (his cellmate) was positive before the report came out, before they quarantined him and quarantined me,” Akey said. “Everybody they claimed were exposed to him, they were bringing back into segregation.” 

Akey said he remained in a segregated cell until he was released four days later.

He said that before his cellmate obtained the positive test result, corrections allowed his cellmate to continue to stay in the two-person cell despite his complaining of Covid-19 symptoms.

“The whole time he was ill they were still allowing him in population, they were still allowing him to work in the kitchen,” Akey added. 

James Baker
Interim Corrections Commissioner James Baker in a videoconference with the St. Johnsbury selectboard on April 13, 2020.

Baker said he couldn’t say whether Akey’s cellmate was the first to test positive at the facility or respond to Akey’s allegations without more information. Baker did say, “If we had anybody that was in the process of testing or showing symptoms, they went into medical isolation.” 

The commissioner did say that most of the inmates who have tested positive for the coronavirus were asymptomatic, or not showing any signs of Covid-19. That’s why, Baker said, the corrections department was taken aback by the number of inmates who came back positive for the virus following the mass testing. 

Baker disputed that officials kept inmates in general population settings with others if they showed symptoms of the illness. He added that the procedures regarding the use of PPE inside the facility have been evolving over time, following recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Health.

A total of 38 inmates and 17 staff members at the St. Albans prison have tested positive for Covid-19. Most of those inmates were moved to the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury, to the dismay of some locals who did not want coronavirus-positive inmates moved to the area.

However, Akey was not one of those inmates sent to St. Johnsbury. That’s because, Akey said, he was released before his positive test result had come back. 

Akey said he had been held since January while awaiting trial on charges of domestic assault and sexual assault. Those charges were dismissed earlier this month and he was released from the St. Albans facility on April 9. 

Akey, who hails from Bellows Falls, said he’s glad to be out of jail, and looked forward to getting a job, hopefully in construction. “I’m a spray-foam guy, I’m an insulation guy,” he said. 

The day before his release, Akey said he was tested for the coronavirus as part of mass testing of all inmates and staff at the facility following the first positive test for an inmate at the prison.

Akey said when he was freed from the facility, he was still on conditions of release as well as on probation from past drug convictions. Part of his conditions, he said, called for him to go to a sober house in Plattsburgh, New York, which would have allowed him to be quarantined in a single room. 

But, he said, that out-of-state plan was nixed and instead he had to go to a sober house in Essex, where he had a roommate and nine other people were staying there.

Baker said Tuesday that the corrections department had little time to help Akey figure out options after his release.  

“We don’t have a say when a judge tells us to release someone,” Baker said. “It’s not the kind of planning we like to do. We’re left with quickly making decisions about where he can go.” 

Akey said he told staff at that sober house in Essex as well as his roommate there that he had been exposed to the coronavirus, and had a test pending.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Akey said of that night. “I was afraid that I was going to get somebody sick. I knew I could potentially infect nine people.” 

After staying there for one night, on Friday, April 10, he said he was contacted by a state official who told him he had tested positive for Covid-19. Akey said he called state’s 211 hotline, which connected him to the state Department of Health and he was told to quarantine at the alternative hospital set up by the Vermont National Guard at the Essex fairgrounds.

National Guard surge facility
Vermont National Guard soldiers and airmen construct a 400-bed medical surge facility at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Junction on April 4, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

He said he stayed at that facility for about 10 days. For most of that time he was the only patient there. 

Akey said he was released from the fairground hospital on April 21 after he hadn’t shown any symptoms of the coronavirus for a number of days. Following his release from there, Akey said, he went to another sober house in Burlington.

At the time of release from the fairgrounds hospital, he said, medical staff there gave him paperwork saying that he had been “free from active coronavirus infection and deemed noninfectious,” and could return to normal life activities.

Akey said while at the Burlington sober house last Thursday, April 23, a community health center mobile testing unit came to the facility and retested him.

The Holiday Inn South Burlington
The Holiday Inn in South Burlington is a Covid-19 recovery site for homeless populations. Photo by Mark Johnson/VTDigger

“They said the guidelines in Vermont changed, that people who had tested positive and were living in community settings needed to test negative before they can go back there,” Akey said.

“This past Friday the test came back that I’m still positive for Covid-19,” he said. “They told me I needed to go back into quarantine until I tested negative.”  

Since then, he said, he’s been staying in a room at the Holiday Inn.

Akey said he is not feeling ill now. He said for the first several days he was at the alternative hospital at the Essex fairgrounds he was quite sick, with a fever, loss of energy, and a loss of his sense of smell — a trademark of this virus. He also said he lost 15 pounds.

On Wednesday afternoon, Akey said he was told by health officials that since he had been symptom-free for 14 days that he could leave the Holiday Inn. He said he was going later in the afternoon to a sober house in Burlington.

“I want to be in the community, I want to work,” he said. “I want some normalcy in my life.”

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