Crime and Justice

Six inmates test positive for Covid-19 upon returning to Vermont from Mississippi

On the road near Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility.
Six inmates tested positive for Covid-19 after returning from the privately run Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi. Photo by Alan Keays/VTDigger

Editor’s note: This article was updated with additional information and interviews at 6:02 p.m. on July 30.

Six inmates have tested positive for Covid-19 upon returning to Vermont this week from a privately-run Mississippi prison, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Also, according to the department, a Vermont inmate still in that Mississippi prison has tested positive for the coronavirus this week — and had been in the same housing unit as three of the inmates who returned to the state. 

The six inmates came into the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland from the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi, on Tuesday.

The positive tests from Vermont inmates coming from the Mississippi facility has resulted in the mass testing of all the roughly 220 prisoners from the state held in that prison, according to Al Cormier, a corrections department facilities executive. Vermont is currently awaiting the results. 

Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio said Thursday that while the in-state facilities seem to have a “pretty good handle” on preventing the spread of Covid-19, he’s not sure that’s the case at the Mississippi prison. 

“I get the sense they are not taking it as seriously as we are taking it here,” said Valerio, whose department includes the state’s Prisoners’ Rights Office. 

“We’ve had reports from inmates that we can contact over the phone that indicated sort of a laissez-faire approach to wearing masks,” Valerio added. “When we call them on it, they assure us they are doing the right thing.” 

According to the Mississippi Department of Health, a total of 14 inmates at the Mississippi prison in Tutwiler have tested positive for Covid-19 since the pandemic started.

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However, according to Cormier, while Vermont has done mass testing of all the inmates at the six in-state prisons, Mississippi only tests those inmates who are showing symptoms of the virus. 

Prior to this week, there had been a total of 48 in-state inmates who have tested positive for Covid-19 since the pandemic hit earlier this year. Of that total, 45 prisoners tested positive in late March and early April during an outbreak at the Northwest Regional Correctional Facility in St. Albans.

Upon arrival at the Rutland facility, Cormier said, the group of six prisoners returning from Mississippi were placed in quarantine and tested Tuesday for Covid-19, a protocol for new intakes into a correctional facility. The result came back Wednesday night, he added. 

Defender General Matt Valerio at the Public Defender’s Office in Rutland on July 28. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“One inmate had a temperature the other five showed no symptoms,” he said, “That individual who had the temperature, that has subsided. So at this point, none of the inmates are symptomatic.” 

Cormier said he is not aware of those six inmates ever being tested in Mississippi.  

As for the inmate still in Mississippi who tested positive, that result also came back Wednesday, according to Comier. 

The six inmates at Marble Valley are now in isolation at the jail and contact tracing is taking place.

“What we hope is that the Vermont model of mitigation works in this situation,” James Baker, interim corrections commissioner, said Thursday in a statement. 

“Fortunately, we were already prepared for it,” he added. “Marble Valley stopped intakes and transfers on July 2 in anticipation that we’d need space to house an influx of positive cases either from the community or out of state.”

James Lyall, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Thursday that he was disappointed, but not surprised, by the news.  

“This is both disgraceful and utterly predictable,” he said. “We’ve been calling on the Department of Corrections and the Scott administration to test Vermonters incarcerated out of state in Mississippi for months, and they refused to.”

He added, “Even now DOC has no idea how many incarcerated Vermonters in Mississippi may have Covid-19 because they haven’t bothered to check up to this point. That’s unacceptable.”  

James Lyall, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, speaks at a press conference in Montpelier on October 8, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The inmates who were transferred back to Vermont were medically screened, including symptom and temperature checks, prior to leaving the Mississippi and showed no sign of the virus, according to Ryan Gustin, CoreCivic public affairs manager.

“Once we learned of these positive cases,” he added, “we placed the two housing pods that these inmates were transferred from on a medical isolation/quarantine status.”

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Vermont is currently housing 219 prisoners at the Mississippi facility, run by CoreCivic, one of the largest private prison operators in the country. The state contracted with the company nearly two years ago, and is currently negotiating a one-year extension

The six inmates who arrived in Vermont on Tuesday from Mississippi traveled in a bus, and they were the only passengers in that vehicle, Cormier said. 

In addition, he said, the inmates only came in contact with the transport team and didn’t leave the bus during the trip, as the vehicle had a bathroom inside and meals were provided.

Asked about the Covid-19 protocols in Mississippi compared to Vermont prisons, Cormier replied, “We have sent them our facility protocols and are in constant communication with them,” he said. 

Cormier added that Vermont corrections has provided masks for all of the state’s inmates held at the Mississippi facility. 

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Alan J. Keays

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