Officer Tests Positive at Vermont's Women's Prison, Prompting Mass Testing | Off Message

Officer Tests Positive at Vermont's Women's Prison, Prompting Mass Testing


Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility
Updated at 3:16 p.m.

The coronavirus has been detected at a third Vermont prison, the Department of Corrections announced Wednesday.

During a round of staff testing Monday at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, one of 84 corrections officers who volunteered to be tested was found to have contracted COVID-19, the department said. That triggered a new round of mandatory testing to take place Thursday at Chittenden Regional, Vermont's only prison for women. It will include the remaining 47 staff, as well as 74 inmates.

According to department spokesperson Rachel Feldman, the officer who tested positive had direct contact with inmates. None have yet been isolated, she said, though Chittenden Regional and all Vermont prisons have been in modified lockdown for weeks, limiting interaction between inmates. "We are actively conducting contact tracing now," Feldman said, adding that those found to have interacted with the infected staffer would be separated from others.

Feldman said the officer had not exhibited symptoms of the coronavirus. The voluntary testing that took place Monday was part of a plan announced last week to expand the practice to facilities where the virus had not yet been detected.

Chittenden Regional was the first prison to take part in the expanded testing, which is available only to staff members. According to Feldman, the department plans to test one facility each week. The Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury is expected to be tested next Monday.

“I will say that we’re on the hunt for this virus, primarily because we’re not seeing any symptoms at all in our correctional facilities that we already don’t know about,” Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith, whose agency oversees the Department of Corrections, said later Wednesday at an unrelated press conference in Montpelier. He added that the expanded testing at prisons throughout the state was focused on officers because they were most likely to transmit the virus into the otherwise sealed facilities.

Staff members at three Vermont prisons have now tested positive for the coronavirus. An employee at Newport's Northern State Correctional Facility who did not have direct contact with inmates tested positive in March. Eighteen staffers at Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton have tested positive, according to the department's coronavirus tracker.

The virus has been detected among prisoners at one facility: Northwest State. According to Feldman, 45 inmates at the prison for men have tested positive. According to the tracker, 35 of them have since recovered after a period in quarantine at Northeast Correctional.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Smith praised his employees for apparently containing the outbreak at Northwest State and said they ought to be recognized for their work. “What Corrections did in St. Albans is truly amazing,” he said. “They had a full-fledged outbreak in their facility up in St. Albans and they stopped it.”

Smith also engaged in a lengthy tirade against unnamed critics of the department and its officers.

“Oftentimes they get a bad rap, and I’ve seen that happen over the last few days or few weeks on it,” Smith said. “There are some out there — and it’s only a few — but there are some out there who wish to portray our correctional system as something, I guess, reminiscent of Cool Hand Luke or something like that, and that could [not] be farther from the truth.”

It was not clear whether the secretary was referring to allegations of sexual misconduct, drug use and retribution within the department, which led last December to the resignation of its commissioner and which prompted Smith himself to commission an independent investigation.

“Vermont has one of the most progressive correctional facilities and departments in the country,” he continued. “And do they get everything right? No. But does anybody get [everything] right? The answer is no, as well. But they get a lot right as they move forward.”