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Vermont's Prison COVID-19 Outbreak Brings Concerns For Inmates And Their Families

Northwest State Correctional Facility, shown in this 2008 file photo, would be closed as part of the new proposal.
Toby Talbot
/
Associated Press File
Northwest State Correctional Facility, which has seen an outbreak of COVID-19 in its staff and inmates.

A total of 32 inmates and 16 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 at Northwest State Correctional Facility. The Department of Corrections has moved 28 of those inmates to Northeast Correctional Complex to help isolate the virus. This hour, we talk to to the Department of Corrections about what the state is doing to prevent further spread of COVID-19 in Vermont prisons. 

  • Jim Baker, Department of Corrections Commissioner
  • Ruth Bardwell, mother of Northern State Correctional Facility Inmate
  • Jay Diaz, senior staff attorney at ACLU of Vermont

Broadcast live on Monday, April 13, 2020 at 1 p.m. Rebroadcast at 8 p.m.

The following has been edited and paraphrased for brevity and clarity.

 

 

 

 

Q & A With Jim Baker, Corrections Commissioner

 

 

How many inmates and staff have tested positive at Northwest Correctional Facility in St. Albans and what can you tell us about the situation there?

 

Jim Baker: We tested 328 folks: the entire inmate population and our working staff both in corrections and on our support staff. 

 

The results came back, and there were 32 inmates who tested positive and a total of 14 staff members at that site during that testing period who tested positive. 

 

We had one positive staff member early on at the Newport facility. However, the way the results came back at the St. Albans facility concerned us greatly. We had an inmate test positive early on who had shown symptoms. We had a civilian staff member who worked in a separate part of the facility, and then we had another staff member test positive, who was working in another part of the facility. 

 

It was a clue to us that we had grave concerns about where the virus was inside of the facility.

 

Sec. Mike Smith from Human Services directed us and the Health Department to test everyone in the facility. 

 

More from VPR: Vermont Inmates Say They Aren’t Informed About COVID-9 Cases Behind Bars

 

Were you surprised by the number of tests from the facility that came back positive?

 

Jim Baker: Yes, we were. We were taken aback by the number. We had a very good plan in place, that we had put in place for a period of time to deal with the surge. We were modifying that plan on a regular basis with aid from the Vermont Department of Health and in keeping with CDC guidance, along with the input we were getting from correctional organizations in the Northeast whom we are in regular contact with.

 

We had a good plan in place and when that number came up, we had to execute it quickly last Wednesday and Thursday. 

 

Can you describe what the facility in St. Johnsbury looks like right now, where 28 inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 have been moved to? 

 

Jim Baker: Air handling systems in correctional facilities become very important when you are having this conversation. 

 

Part of the challenge at Northwest (St. Albans) was the fact that we do have one negative pressure room, where you can take the air out of the room and bring fresh air in. The rest of the facility is not like that. 

 

We did have an original plan that we could house upwards of six, eight or maybe ten people in that negative pressure area. But when we got this number, we made the decision to quickly execute the plan to bring them to St. Johnsbury.

 

There, we have them in a space where they are completely isolated and separated off with plastic sheeting that separates them out. Today, we are putting up plywood to further isolate them. They also have an air handling system that is separate from the rest of the building. That was key in us identifying St. Johnsbury as the location we would use for a surge unit.

 

There are folks left behind — inmates — who are working in the kitchen and cleaning the rest of the facility — and the staff that deals with the inmates that are COVID-19 positive enter the building via a completely different entrance. 

 

On their way out they are detoxed in a detox tent set up by the National Guard and we have completely isolated off that group of individuals so we don’t have any cross-contamination.

 

It sounds as though some of the elected leaders represent that region are a little bit concerned. For example, Sen. Joe Benning said was at first unaware that 25 inmates would be left behind at the facility. He is worried about the relocated inmates infecting those who were there. Representative Scot Beck is worried about community spread in St. Johnsbury, in a place where there isn’t enough medical capacity to take care of residents before adding a COVID-19 positive inmate population. How would you address those concerns?

 

Jim Baker: I appreciate and understand all of their concerns. We’ve been dealing with those concerns. Let’s address the 25 inmates who were left behind. I’ve been clear with the representatives that in conversations last week, I may not have been clear. 

 

Al Cormier, who is head of all of the facilities, was pretty clear in interviews that when we made the decision to move on Wednesday, there would be some staff left behind. I may have confused that. I own that. 

 

With regards to creating a hotspot, in my 45 years of working in EMS, under crisis management, we are in a situation that is unprecedented. It’s a nationwide, worldwide pandemic. 

 

It’s not just a local challenge to deal with this — this is a statewide challenge. We only have so many facilities where we can safely contain the virus. St. Johnsbury was our best choice. The other facilities cannot contain that number of people. 

 

"I believe that we have contained [the virus] within this facility in the absolute best way we can..." — Jim Baker, Corrections Commissioner

It’s a statewide effort, and it’s not the only location in the state where these sorts of decisions are being made. In Chittenden County, look at the hotels that are being used to house homeless COVID-19 positive folks. We have to use the resources we have to contain and manage this. 

I believe that we have contained that within this facility in the absolute best way we can based on advise from the Vermont Department of Health, guidance from the CDC, and what we’ve done to contain the spread within that building with access to the area where the people are being housed that are COVID-19 positive. 

 

It’s pretty clear in the guidance that personal spacing is the way to contain and not spread the virus. We do not plan on allowing those folks to have access to anyone besides our staff, and we are monitoring our staff very closely and to provide them with proper PPE and train them in how to take it off safely and to disinfect it. 

 

28 of the inmates who tested positive have been moved to the St. Johnsbury facility. Where are the others?

 

Jim Baker: The four others remain behind in St. Albans. Two have been released because they have met their minimum… they had other reasons for why they were released.

 

Two have been left in the negative pressure room at St. Albans because we had room for them there. But we also wanted to be sure that because of the pure number of positive tests, we had some capacity there to take someone out of circulation without having to move them immediately such a long distance away. 

 

Do you have the staff you need in St. Johnsbury to operate this facility?

 

Jim Baker: The way we are managing this in corrections is unprecedented. We have an incident command team, a planning section. I get daily reports on staying levels. We have a lot of people out. We now have staff that have tested positive and we have a fair number of staff who are, for other personal reasons, out on sick leave or what we refer to as COVID leave.

 

We feel right now that we are staffed statewide to handle the situation and that we could have two or three more layers deep before we run into trouble around staffing.

 

Do you think that you have any staff who don’t feel safe, don’t feel protected and who could quit because they don’t think that this is worth the risk? 

 

Jim Baker: Absolutely. Everybody is fearful of this. This is unprecedented. I’m fearful of this. My family is fearful of it. I’ve talked with a lot of corrections officers in the last couple of weeks and they’re scared; their families are scared, just like the communities are scared.

 

The decisions we are making every day are easily criticized, but we are making them based on the best information at the time. I am reassuring the staff as best I can, but I understand why they are fearful.

 

I talked to every single affected staff member that was tested over the weekend. They all have families, and I could hear in their voices how fearful they are. We’ve set up situations where we can isolate them from their family if they feel better and we will pay for that.

 

But just like the community is scared, these folks are scared, and we are managing that as best we can. 

 

The folks who are coming to work every day, I can’t tell you how proud I am of them, that they are putting themselves in harms way for the better good of other people. 

 

What is DOC doing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from staff who are caring for or working with the inmates housed in St. Johnsbury who have tested positive? 

 

Jim Baker: We are offering staff the choice of staying in isolated areas. I can’t force them to do that; that’s their choice. 

 

We are checking staff on a regular basis for symptoms of the virus, including through temperature checks, questionnaires. We are encouraging staff to be good neighbors. 

 

The only way a corrections officer leaving that facility, if they do contract the virus, can spread that virus to other folks, is through the lack of following good guidelines as put out by the Health Department and CDC. 

 

I appreciate and understand the fear — I have it too. But we still have to staff and run these facilities, so we are doing everything in our power to make sure they are being good citizens and practicing proper social distancing. 

 

Could you talk Commissioner Baker about the state’s policy and procedures for releasing COVID-19 positive prisoners? 

 

Jim Baker: Two of the COVID-19 positive people got released over the weekend. We are following guidelines that were put in place on March 30. 

 

The population as of April 13 at last count this morning was 1,417 folks housed in correctional facilities, in our system, in Vermont. Of those folks, 246 are lodged in the facility in Mississippi. At the end of February, we had 1,671 people in the system. 

 

In the last week lone, we’ve released 32 people from the system. We are going through a methodical process to determine who we should release to thin out our population. 

 

We have to take into consideration the nature of the crimes, if there are victims involved and make sure we are not being reckless about who we release if there are public safety concerns. 

 

Today we sit at 1,417. We’ve loosened up the guidelines around such things as need for housing. 

 

But I also understand that if you are a loved one of someone who is incarcerated, those numbers don’t mean anything to you because we did not release your loved one. That is a very emotional thing. But we are going through a process and working very hard to lower this population.

 

If we had not worked as hard as we did, when we got hit with the virus in the Northwest facility, my options to be able to react the way we did would have been greatly limited if we hadn’t had a low population in St. Johnsbury. It would have made it much more difficult for us and we could have had a much more serious outbreak in St. Albans. We don’t know that we are out of the woods yet. 

 

 

259 of the folks in that population of 1,417 are people that are detained. We have no control over who is detained [and are awaiting their trial or have not yet been sentenced] — that’s up to the courts. They are held on bail. As Commissioner of Corrections, I have no control over those folks.

 

Out of that population, 1,090 are sentenced to certain terms. 

 

  • 1,671: The number of people incarcerated in Vermont’s prison system as of Feb., 2020
  • 1,417: The number of people incarcerated in Vermont’s prison system as of April 13, 2020
  • 103: The number of people incarcerated in Vermont’s prison system who are over 60 years of age.
  • 259: The number of people detained in Vermont
  • 246: The number of people who are part of Vermont’s prison system but incarcerated in Mississippi

*Data courtesy DOC Commissioner Jim Baker, as of April 13

 

We do have some flexibility once they meet their minimum sentence. That is how we were able to lower these numbers. Then, there are 34 that are on hold for various reasons. But the number of inmates that we have control over, that we can make the call about whether to release, is getting smaller every day. 

 

How have you reduced the number of inmates in Vermont’s system? 

 

Jim Baker: The guidance went out in March, it was pretty clear that the second step was to start to scan the population for people who have served their minimum sentences and for folks, for example, who couldn’t meet their programming requirements because they couldn’t get their programming done. I expect this number will go below the 1,417 we saw this morning as we continue to look at this.

 

What more could the DOC do to remove some of the barriers currently in place to release during a time of crisis?

 

Jim Baker: We are methodically going through the list of folks who could be eligible to be released. During this pandemic, we have released more people than at any other time in the recent past. 

 

The process has to be methodically thought-out. You can't just open up the doors of the jail and let people out. I often hear that the department should release prisoners who are more than 60 years of age. I actually have a list here, and though I want to protect the dignity of inmates and not categorize them, I think people should know that there are 103 inmates over 60 years of age in Vermont's system. 

 

  • 103: The number of inmates in Vermont's prison system that are over the age of 60
  • 18: The number of inmates over 60 who are serving a sentence for murder
  • 51: The number of inmates over 60 who are serving a sentence for sex crimes
  • 9: The number of inmates over 60 who are serving a sentence for aggravated assault

*Data courtesy DOC Commissioner Jim Baker, as of April 13

 

When you look at these 103 individuals, several of them are sentenced. In fact,18 are sentenced for murder, 51 are sentenced for sex crimes and nine are sentenced for aggravated assault. The medical furlough is very, very tight. There is very little room for me under the law to do anything with that. 

 

We are now starting to look at the group of individuals who were denied programming [due to COVID-19]. But we are also now into the group of individuals for whom making a decision about whether to release them is not as easy as for that first group.

"Just like the community is scared, these folks are scared, and we are managing that as best we can." —Jim Baker, Corrections Commissioner

More from VPR: Vermont Inmates Report Inconsistent Access To Soap, Hand Sanitizer

Lockdown can be extremely taxing psychologically. How are you ensuring that inmates are not subjected to treatment that is usually reserved for people who are in flagrant violation of the rules? How are you protecting the mental health of inmates? 

 

Jim Baker: We initially went to a full lockdown last week when the outbreak was first discovered in St. Albans. We decided to lift that to a modified lockdown at the other facilities. For us, the purpose is to keep an eye out for any signs of another outbreak.

 

The reason St. Albans is in a full  lockdown is that we are following the guidelines for quarantine. 

 

It is very taxing. We have to have a level of dignity and respect for folks that are by statute in our custody. We are doing our best to talk them through the lockdown and make sure they understand why we are doing it. we are also trying to provide them with opportunities for conversation with the leadership inside these facilities. 

 

We are doing our best to keep the stress and anxiety down. 

 

To all the folks out there with family members housed in jail, who may be listening: We are not doing this to punish anyone. We are doing this because we are following the science and the guidance we are getting from medical advisors about how to keep the virus from spreading. If other people test negative there, that does not mean that they cannot show up positive a two-to-three days later. 

 

How are you making sure that message is getting out to everyone who is living under these policies? 

 

Jim Baker: I just brought on two staff members as part of a two-person team to help us do a better job of communicating with family members. We’re also engaging — as part of that three-person team — a person who is an advocate and who has served time in jail, who can better communicate than we can understand what these families are going through.

 

We are creating a customer service software system where people can send questions in to us and we will have staff members immediately get back to families and answer their questions to make sure families and inmates have the information they need. 

 

What is the status of the Vermont prisoners we’ve sent to out-of-state prisons, and what are the virus conditions in the prisons they are in?

 

Jim Baker: We get daily reports. Yesterday, unfortunately, the facility in Mississippi went on a lockdown due to weather. None of the Vermont inmates have tested positive. Some of the staff members [at that facility] have tested positive. 

 

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