State officials should have done more to ensure that Vermont prisoners held in a private prison in Mississippi were protected from COVID-19, Gov. Phil Scott admitted Tuesday, days after a major outbreak there came to light.
The state’s contract with for-profit prison giant CoreCivic required it to follow the same testing protocol as Vermont prisons, but the company didn't, Scott said.
“Looking back, we should have pressed harder on them to do this,” Scott said. “It was just a shortcoming on our part.”
Scott and Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said CoreCivic shared the blame for not instituting more robust testing and safety procedures for the 219 prisoners housed in its facility in Tutwiler, Miss.
On July 28, six inmates who returned to Vermont from the facility tested positive for COVID-19 when they arrived by bus at the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland. The DOC immediately ordered tests on all of Vermont inmates held in Mississippi. On Sunday it announced 85 inmates there had tested positive.
More test results were expected soon. With the pandemic raging around the country, waits of up to two weeks for results were being reported.
DOC officials are now trying to ensure that Vermont testing protocols are implemented in Mississippi. Scott said the state’s regimen is considered the “gold standard” in the nation.
The protocols include testing all inmates, whether they have symptoms or not, upon entry and again at day seven and day 14. Anyone found positive must immediately be quarantined, Smith said.
All staff at the Vermont area of the Mississippi facility will be tested, Smith said. The private prison has the capacity to house 2,800 prisoners. The entire Vermont population also needs to be tested on a rotating basis, just as inmates are in Vermont facilities, and the same sanitation and medical protocols must be in place, Smith said.
DOC officials have held regular calls with their counterparts in Mississippi, and "may put boots on the ground" there, Smith said.
Smith focused his remarks on the CoreCivic’s responsibilities and contractual obligations. “Mississippi has seen much greater virus spread in recent weeks, and tactics needed to change,” Smith said. “The CoreCivic protocols needed to simulate Vermont’s.”
He said the facility has been “slow” to adopt Vermont’s more robust protocols. But Smith said he didn’t know when DOC officials first asked CoreCivic officials to do so; Scott said he wasn’t sure it ever happened.
Smith said he didn’t know who will pay for the higher level of testing, quarantining and medical care that will now be required at the Mississippi facility.
Many Vermont officials have publicly said they favor ending the practice of sending inmates out of state. During the pandemic, Vermont has reduced its prison population by more than 300.
Even if the drop in population makes it possible to bring out-of-state prisoners home, facilities in Vermont still need updating, Scott said.