Crime and Justice

Black inmates make up a disproportionate share of Covid-19 cases in prison

Inside Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. Photo by Cory Dawson/VTDigger

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Data from the Vermont Department of Corrections shows that while black inmates were almost 9% of the total prisoners tested for Covid-19 in the state, they made up nearly 18% of the prisoners who have tested positive for the coronavirus. 

Black inmates were also 2.2 times more likely to test positive than white inmates.

The latest numbers showing the racial breakdown of the Covid-19 testing done throughout the state’s prison system were released Monday afternoon on the corrections department website. 

The release of the information follows the completion last week of blanket testing of all inmates and staff at the state’s six correctional facilities, with the testing taking place at one prison per week.

In total, the corrections department reported testing 1,224 inmates for the coronavirus across Vermont’s prisons. Of that total of prisoners tested, 108, or 8.8%, were black inmates.

Of the 45 positive tests among inmates for the coronavirus, they all stem from an outbreak reported in April at the Northwest Regional Correctional Facility in St. Albans. The corrections department also reported that currently there are no identified active Covid-19 cases in the state’s prison system.

A breakdown of those 45 prisoners testing positive for Covid-19 shows eight were black; 35 were white; and two were listed as “other/unknown.” 

The testing results from the state’s prisons follow patterns nationwide and in Vermont showing people of color have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. 

The corrections department figures do not include Hispanic or non-Hispanic breakdown, which is provided for the general population in statistics from the state Department of Health.

Al Cormier, the corrections department director of facilities, said he didn’t know why the DOC figures did not include a Hispanic and non-Hispanic breakdown, and would need to further research that matter. 

He did say that the positive Covid-19 tests at the St. Albans prison came primarily from two housing units within the facility.

“It certainly looks like there is a grand difference in those numbers,” Cormier said of the racial disparities in the testing results. ”But without knowing where those folks were residing, if they were residing together, it’s hard to put those pieces together at this point.” 

The statistics provided by the corrections department do not say how many black inmates were tested at the St. Albans prison. “That’s something we’d like to look at,” he said. 

Cormier added, “Obviously we’ve been collecting data but we can do a lot better analyzing that data.” 

Dr. Etan Nasreddin-Longo, chair of the Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System Advisory Panel, said he wasn’t surprised that black inmates are testing positive for Covid-19 at a higher rate than white inmates.

“Is anyone really shocked by this?” he asked. “Maybe the number seems absurdly high, sure. But that it would be high? That it would be disproportionate? Nah.” 

He added, “I think we’re all getting so numb to constant reinforcement of second class citizenship, you’ve got to move beyond the numb but it’s hard.”

Nasreddin-Longo said he is aware that the corrections department has been part of the discussion to address racial disparities.

“I want to give them credit for that,” he said, then added of the most recent prison testing numbers, ”I don’t know why anybody would have thought that anything would have turned out any differently than it had.”

The corrections department did not do blanket testing of the 235 inmates that it doesn’t have the capacity to house in-state and instead sends to the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility, run by private prison operator CoreCivic, in Tutwiler, Mississippi.

Including those 235 inmates, Vermont has a total incarcerated population of 1,388 inmates. That total includes 129 black inmates, or 9.2% of the total incarcerated population for Vermont. The most recent Census demographic data shows black Vermonters make up about 1.5% of the population of the state. 

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