Another 62 Vermont inmates in a for-profit, private prison in Mississippi have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total there to 147.
The new results mean that roughly two-thirds of the Vermont inmates housed at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility have tested positive for the disease, according to the Vermont Department of Corrections.
Sixty-two of the 219 inmates there have tested negative, eight have refused to be tested, and the results of two tests are still pending.
Interim Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker said he was “very concerned” about the latest results and was sending two top staffers to Mississippi Thursday to get a closer look at the situation.
“One hundred forty-seven inmates testing positive gives me great pause,” Baker said during a press conference Wednesday afternoon.
The Vermont inmates are housed separately from the other prisoners at the facility. The ones who tested negative are quarantined in one unit, while the others are in isolation.
The prison can hold as many as 2,800 inmates from all over the country. Baker acknowledged that, while the Vermont inmates are housed separately, they may have had jobs in other parts of the sprawling complex.
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 ordered tests of every Vermont inmate held in Mississippi, and on Sunday announced that 85 inmates there had tested positive.
Baker called the situation at the facility “a crisis” that had eroded his trust in the operator of the prison, CoreCivic.
He noted that Vermont paid the company $6.8 million last year. Baker said he “cannot overstate how frustrated” he is that a company as large as CoreCivic has allowed such an outbreak when “little old Vermont” has been “able to keep our facilities as clean as they are.”
Part of the problem, however, appears to be that Vermont officials didn’t ensure that the safety precautions in place at Vermont prisons were being implemented in Mississippi.
On Tuesday, Gov. Phil Scott called that “a shortcoming on our part.” Human Services Secretary Mike Smith noted that CoreCivic also bore responsibility for the level of preventive care provided.
On Wednesday, Baker said he takes responsibility for the oversights.
“I should have been more inquisitive, and I should have been more aware of processes in Mississippi and asked more questions,” Baker said.
Asked why the DOC never required stricter testing protocols in Mississippi like the standards Vermont prisons adopted earlier in the year, he said he didn’t know.
“I’m still not in the position to figure out yet why we are where we are,” Baker said.
Other DOC officials who joined the press conference remotely confirmed that prison guards at the Mississippi facility continued to go home at the end of their shifts and were not being isolated from the broader community.
Baker said getting a clearer sense of the infection rate among guards and jail staff — and the inmate population in other parts of the facility — is vital.
He noted that one of the reasons Vermont has been so successful in controlling in-state prison outbreaks is because the communities that host its prisons have been successful in keeping infection rates low.
By contrast, Tallahatchie County, Miss., has one of the fastest-growing COVID-19 infection rates in the nation, he noted.