147 Vermont inmates housed at Mississippi prison test positive for COVID-19

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TUTWILER, Miss. (AP) — Nearly 150 Vermont inmates housed in a Mississippi prison have tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, the head of the Vermont Corrections Department announced Wednesday.

Vermont houses 219 inmates at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi, because of a lack of capacity in its own prisons. Late last month, six inmates who were returned to Vermont from the private Mississippi prison tested positive when they arrived at the Rutland, Vermont, correctional facility.

That prompted Vermont’s Corrections Department on July 30 to order that the remaining Vermont inmates in Mississippi be tested.

Interim Vermont Corrections Commissioner James Baker announced Tuesday that along with the 147 positive tests, 62 tested negative though two tests were still pending and eight inmates refused to get tested.

Mississippi only tests symptomatic inmates, while Vermont changed its protocol after an outbreak at the Swanton prison to test Vermont prison inmates and staff regularly. It had sent its guidance to the Mississippi prison, Baker said.

“In hindsight, as the Commissioner of Corrections, on this particular issue, I should have been more inquisitive and I should have been more aware of processes in Mississippi and asked more questions to clarify because clearly where we sit now with the number of positive tests something went wrong,” he said.

None of the inmates were currently showing symptoms that concerned the Corrections Department, Baker said.

Vermont has insisted on regular testing of the Vermont inmates in the Mississippi facility, as the state does at its own prisons, separating those who tested negative from those who tested positive and testing staff, officials said.

Vermont has tested more than four times the number of inmates as Mississippi, despite Mississippi having nearly 15 times the number of prisoners, according to data collected by The Associated Press and The Marshall Project tracking COVID-19 cases in state prison systems.

CoreCivic, which operates the Mississippi prison, is one of the largest private providers of jail space in the country, Baker said. Last year the state paid it roughly $6.8 million, Baker said. The outbreak has caused a trust issue with CoreCivic, he said.

“I cannot overstate how frustrated I am that someone that runs a jail system like that wasn’t aware of the things that we were aware of in little old Vermont that we’re able to keep our facilities as clean as they are,” Baker said.

CoreCivic said in a written statement on Monday that it was working with Vermont officials and “since even before any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in our facilities, including Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility (TCCF), we have rigorously followed the guidance of local, state and federal health authorities, as well as our government partners.”

Baker also announced that one inmate at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport and one inmate at the Marble Valley Correctional Facility in Rutland have tested positive. They both were in quarantine when they were tested and have been moved to medical isolation, the Corrections Department said.

The outbreak adds to critics’ concerns about housing inmates out of state. Gov. Phil Scott’s administration had proposed building a new correctional facility in Vermont but the Legislature opposed it.

Asked about the outbreak in Mississippi earlier this week, Scott suggested it’s time to revisit the issue.

“We know our facilities, our infrastructure, is outdated and needs to be upgraded and we need to bring our offenders back to Vermont,” Scott said.

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