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Vermont Corrections Commissioner: 'We Didn't Expect This Number'

A prison exterior with hills in the background.
Erica Heilman
VPR File
The Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury, whose occupants were relocated to other facilities to make room for COVID-19-positive inmates from Northwest State Correctional Facility.

Updated 6:20 p.m.

More than two dozen inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 at a Franklin County prison have been moved to an isolation facility in St. Johnsbury. Four more are residing in negative-pressure chambers at Northwest State Correctional Facility. 

All inmates and staff at Northwest State underwent testing this week after one inmate and three staff members there tested positive for COVID-19. Eleven more staff members have now also tested positive, plus another 31 inmates. Complete results are not yet in for all of those who were tested.

“We didn’t expect this number, coming out of Northwest,” Department of Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker told reporters during a press conference Friday afternoon. He said none of the people with the most recent positive tests had shown symptoms.

However, he added that one staff member who previously tested positive is now recovering after nearly losing his life to COVID-19. 

Baker said the 65 inmates who were located at the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury had already been relocated to other facilities across the state, to make room for the contagious inmates.

According to the commissioner, the St. Johnsbury complex has enough beds to quarantine 80 inmates, but will be limited to 56 inmates unless the facility can retain additional medical staff.

More from VPR: Vermont Inmates Say They Aren't Informed About COVID-19 Cases Behind Bars

Baker also said the full lockdown imposed Thursday for all facilities had been lifted everywhere except at the Franklin County prison. Now, all other facilities are in a “modified” lockdown, allowing inmates to leave their cells in small numbers for time outside.

During a press briefing earlier in the day, Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith said his department will not conduct universal testing at other correctional facilities until a resident of the facility has symptoms and tests positive for COVID-19.

“I wish we had that type of capacity,” he said. This testing protocol will also apply to any correctional facility, nursing home, assisted living facility, residential treatment facility or state psychiatric facility, Smith said.

“They need to do more,” said James Lyall, Executive Director of the ACLU of Vermont. “When you're hearing in response to a major prison outbreak that they're not going to test people unless they detect symptoms, that is deeply concerning. I mean, let’s be clear, this is a failure of epic proportions, this outbreak.” 

The inmate population is down 235 inmates since March 4. But Lyall said that’s not enough.

Gov. Scott and his appointees, Lyall said, are “making the claim that everybody else in custody is the worst of the worst. You know, that is not true. Claims like that, unsupported by facts or data, should be presumed false, because they've made that claim for a very long time.” 

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

Secretary Smith addressed some of Lyall’s concerns in his briefing.

“It’s imperative that the crime victims have to be considered in any of our release procedures we’ve been doing,” he said. “There are some hard-core criminals in here that we’re not going to release to the public.”

Many incarcerated Vermonters disagree. Roger Chaffee, incarcerated in Newport, has heart and lung problems. He said he feels “like a sitting duck.” He and his fellow inmate Terry Lizotte both say they are past their minimums, and being held for risk reduction programming which has been halted because of coronavirus.

“We’re pretty much helpless,” said Lizotte, who has severe asthma. “We can’t run from it. We can’t do nothing but face it head on.”

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