COVID-19 cases continue to rise at Northwest Correctional; advocates demand more inmates be tested

Coronavirus

A total of 32 inmates and 14 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton, and more test results are on the way.

Nine additional cases were reported Friday. More than 325 inmates and staff members have been tested, said Department of Corrections Interim Commissioner Jim Baker. Baker said the depatrment is working to get all of the results as soon as possible

“We had to make arrangements out-of-state, and we actually set up relays with police departments to run those all the way to Boston,” Baker said.

Meanwhile the ACLU of Vermont continues to urge Gov. Phil Scott to use his authority to expedite the release of more prisoners. Last week, officials reported that Vermont’s inmate population was has been reduced from about 1671 to 1435 since the virus outbreak.

But ACLU of Vermont Executive Director James Lyall said the latest numbers from Northwest Correctional underscore the risk to inmates. Lyall said the state should test inmates at all Vermont prisons.

“This is a crisis, and Governor Scott is ultimately responsible for ensuring that more is done to protect the people who live and work in those prisons,” Lyall said. “It’s frankly shocking and I think appalling to hear that even after this outbreak, there are no plans to expand testing to other prisons, not to test people until symptoms appear.”

At Friday’s news briefing on the state’s response to the outbreak, Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said widespread testing will only occur at a Vermont prison if an inmate or staff member test positive for COVID-19, or show symptoms.

Last week, 28 inmates moved from Swanton to the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury, which is currently operating as a medical surge facility for inmates with COVID-19. The other four remain quarantined at the Swanton facility.

“We didn’t expect this number coming out of Northwest,” Baker said. “It was a big number, and we had to move very quickly last night to move the population out of St. Johnsbury and get this population over there.”

On Friday, the Corrections Department issued modified lockdowns at all Vermont prisons.

“A modified lockdown allows us to get inmates out of their cells in smaller groups so they can move around, get some exercise,” Baker said. “We have planned in some facilities to let them get some air, but we’re going to do that in small groups.”

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