A prison employee who works at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport has coronavirus, Department of Corrections Interim Commissioner Jim Baker said Monday.
The staffer did not work in the secure portion of the facility where inmates live, Baker said, declining to specify the individual's role as a matter of privacy. The individual, who last worked on March 17, was in proximity to other employees who would work with inmates, Baker acknowledged.
Upon learning of the test result, the department took “immediate" steps, including deep cleaning the employee’s work area, Baker said. The department is also tracking other staff who had contact with the individual, a subsequent press release stated.
Baker said no inmates had been tested for COVID-19 as of Monday, but that the department is monitoring several who have fevers. There are just over 400 people incarcerated at Northern State Correctional Facility and 128 work there.
All correctional staff are screened for respiratory symptoms and fever before entering state prisons, and those with symptoms are sent home.
Since the new coronavirus emerged in Vermont, criminal justice reform advocates and defense attorneys have been pressuring the state to release large numbers of inmates, fearing that a prison outbreak could be impossible to control.
“As COVID-19 progresses, it becomes increasingly urgent that as many people as possible be released from correctional facilities as quickly as possible,” Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform executive director Tom Dalton told Seven Days on Monday night. “The longer we wait, the more complicated the process of releasing people is, and the window of opportunity to reduce the impact of the crisis on correctional facilities diminishes.”
Baker so far has rebuffed such appeals, though he pointed out that the department has released 89 inmates within the last week. That leaves the current population across six Vermont prisons at 1,567, according to the press release.
The Vermont Department of Corrections contracts with Centurion, a subsidiary of Centene Corporation, one of America’s largest companies, to provide medical services to inmates. Baker said the department is planning to handle any coronavirus-afflicted inmates through those resources, which costs the state roughly $20 million annually.
“We are geared up to provide quality health care,” he said. Baker said the prisons have some negative-pressure rooms to isolate inmates — he wasn’t sure how many — and sufficient protective equipment such as masks, gowns and gloves, “for the time being.”
Over the weekend, Baker outlined for lawmakers other steps his department was taking to prevent and prepare for an outbreak, from screening new inmates to ordering additional Gatorade.
“We’re trying everything we can to keep the virus out of our six facilities, and keep our 12 regional probation and parole offices safe,” he said during the Saturday call with the Joint Rules Committee. Baker acknowledged that “some employees have shown symptoms, and we’ve kept them out of work.”
Since in-person visitations have been curtailed, Baker also noted inmates were being given more time outside for recreation, one free weekly video visitation, and additional entertainment privileges.
That included a surprising special event at the Springfield prison the previous weekend.
“We allowed them to have a rock concert inside the facility,” Baker said.
The department also faces a workforce crisis, which the outbreak had exacerbated even before Monday’s positive test. The system is planning to train and certify some of its 143 probation and parole officers to work inside the prisons, Seven Days reported last week.