Crime and Justice

Inmates’ families describe chaotic night as Covid cases explode inside prison

Northern State Correctional Facility
Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport. Vermont Department of Corrections photo

The fiancée of an inmate described a wild night Tuesday at the Newport prison where a Covid-19 outbreak has infected at least 127 inmates and 10 staff members. 

As she spoke by phone with her partner and her cousin — both locked up in the Newport facility — she could hear screaming and yelling in the background from prisoners upset with the Department of Corrections' plan to contain the outbreak in the state’s largest prison. 

The woman — who asked that her name not be used out of fear of retaliation against her, her fiancé or her cousin — said they told her Tuesday night that corrections staff were trying to move all the infected inmates into units at the Northern State Correctional Facility where her fiance and cousin were being housed. 

She was told that corrections officials wanted to keep all the infected inmates together. 

However, her fiancé, her cousin and other inmates didn’t want to move to another area of the facility that the infected prisoners would be vacating, fearing they would catch the virus because not enough had been done to disinfect those areas, she said.

The situation got tense, she said, with corrections staff telling the inmates they would be pepper-sprayed if they didn’t act as instructed.

“They were told they were going to move one way or another,” the woman said she was told by her fiancé and cousin. She said she was told that corrections officers were telling the inmates there was no time to wait to make the moves. 

“They didn’t think it was right to move the negative people over where the positive cases already were, and then the rooms weren’t being properly cleaned,” she said.

“After you clean them, they’re supposed to wait so long,” the woman said, “but they weren’t waiting; they were just moving inmates. “When I was on the phone with them, I could hear the inmates in the background saying they weren’t moving.” 

The woman said her fiancé did eventually end up relocating to the unit with the non-infected inmates, though she didn’t know by late Wednesday if her cousin had also moved.  

Prisoners cross paths

Another woman, Stacy Hubbell, said she spoke Wednesday morning to her husband, Travis Hubbell, who is also incarcerated in Newport. She said he described similar chaos from late Tuesday night into the early morning hours at the prison.

Stacy Hubbell said her biggest concern after talking to her husband is that inmates who had tested positive for Covid-19 had crossed paths with other prisoners during the move, with little or no room for social distancing.

“They just kind of had them passing through each other in the halls and it was a big, jammed-up mess,” Stacy Hubbell said. “Granted, it’s considered a minimal exposure, but still, all those people were Covid-positive and they literally just walked by people who were not Covid-positive.”

Her husband told her that, when he arrived in the new unit, “it reeked of bleach.”

Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio, whose department oversees the state Prisoners’ Rights Office, said Wednesday that an inmate did report an overnight incident at the Newport prison. 

Defender General Matthew Valerio. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“Some inmates were being moved into cells that had been mopped, but they didn’t feel they were thoroughly cleaned after the Covid-positive inmates left,” Valerio said of the report. “It came in from an inmate through one of our lawyers in the Prisoners’ Rights Office.”

Hours before the prisoners were moved, the corrections department announced in a press release that 100 new Covid-19 cases had been detected among inmates at the Newport prison, and eight more among staff. 

That brought the coronavirus cases at the facility to 127 prisoners and 10 employees. It’s the largest outbreak in a Vermont prison since the pandemic began about a year ago.

Those numbers remained unchanged as of Wednesday afternoon, according to Rachel Feldman, a spokesperson for the corrections department.

She also said no Newport inmates were currently hospitalized for Covid-19-related reasons, and she wasn’t aware of any staff hospitalizations, either.

Additional testing at the Newport prison is set for Thursday. 

Feldman deferred further questions to a press conference scheduled for Thursday morning with James Baker, the interim corrections commissioner.

The prison as a hospital

Northern State, which houses about 350 inmates, has been on lockdown since Feb. 25, when results came in detecting the first positive Covid-19 case there. 

In his statement Tuesday night, Baker said the prison “is now being treated like a hospital.” 

Currently, incarcerated individuals and correctional officers can get the Covid-19 vaccine only if they have qualified under the state’s age-banding system. But on Tuesday, state officials announced that correctional officers and an expanded group of first responders would be eligible for the vaccine next week. 

Until then, the state had followed a strict age-based system for deciding who could get the vaccine, and that plan has worked, according to Jason Maulucci, a spokesperson for the governor. 

“Vermont’s vaccination rollout strategy has prioritized protecting the most vulnerable to severe illness and death,” Maulucci said in a written statement Wednesday. “The science and data are clear that age is the top risk factor for severe outcomes, and we have a moral obligation to prioritize preserving life. That’s why we have taken an age-banded approach with the limited supply of vaccine available.”

The state also announced Tuesday that next week it would start vaccinating people over age 16 who have underlying health conditions that contribute to poor outcomes from Covid-19. 

“This policy also applies to our incarcerated population,” Maulucci said. “Incarcerated individuals over the age of 65 are eligible for the vaccines, and any with the identified health conditions will become eligible in the coming days, as well.”

Prisoners rights advocates, as well the union representing corrections officers, blasted the Scott administration Wednesday over its vaccination policies.

Earlier arguments were ignored

“It’s like deja vu all over again,” said James Lyall, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, referring to an earlier push by advocacy groups and others to expand Covid-19 testing for prisoners.

He called on Scott to move now to vaccinate incarcerated individuals. “The governor has not taken responsibility for this, so outbreaks like this are on the governor,” Lyall said.

Kelly Green, a staff attorney with the state Prisoners’ Rights Office, called the lack of prioritizing vaccinations for incarcerated individuals “outlandish.” 

Kelly Green, staff attorney with the state Prisoners’ Rights Office. File photo

“I’m hoping that they’ll change their policy, like, today,” she said Wednesday, because it’s the humane and moral thing to do. 

“I don’t understand why they are not doing it,” she said. “I don’t get it.” 

The state’s lack of action in vaccinating inmates is racist, Green said, citing the disproportionate number of people of color incarcerated in Vermont. “The state gives a lot of lip service to making sure that vaccines are distributed equitably,” she said.  

Asked if the Prisoners’ Rights Office was considering legal action to require the state to vaccinate prisoners, Green replied that all options are on the table.

“Really, there is a political solution here,” she said. “Litigation is never a great way to get health care.” 

Steve Howard, the Vermont State Employees’ Association executive director, strongly criticized the corrections department for waiting so long to vaccinate corrections staff.

When it was announced Tuesday that vaccination of correctional officials would begin next week, he said, state officials must have known details about the Newport prison outbreak that would be announced that night.

“I’m sure they did,” he said. “They had to have known; they did the testing on Monday.”

He claimed the scale of the Newport prison outbreak was the “final nail in the coffin” that pushed the corrections department to finally  vaccinate correctional officers.

“It’s hard to argue, when you have a massive outbreak like you have up at Newport, that staff shouldn’t be vaccinated,” he said.

Maulucci, the governor’s spokesperson, denied Wednesday that the administration knew of the prison test results before they were announced later in the day.

He said Scott and Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, didn’t learn about the Covid-19 Newport prison outbreak until after their regular Tuesday press briefing.

Clarification: This story has been edited to clarify the nature of Steve Howard’s allegations against the Scott administration. 

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