A Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility employee tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday, prompting a full lockdown of Vermont's only women's prison, according to Department of Corrections spokesperson Rachel Feldman.
Inmates at the South Burlington facility have not been tested for the coronavirus since November 24, Feldman said, but all inmates and staff at the prison are scheduled to be tested on Thursday as a result of the positive case.
Feldman declined to describe the staff member's role at Chittenden Regional, citing medical privacy laws, but said that contact tracing was underway to determine whether inmates had been exposed.
To date, the facility has been relatively unscathed by COVID-19. One staff member tested positive in May and one recently admitted inmate tested positive in June, but neither case led to community spread within the prison. According to Feldman, this is the first time Chittenden Regional has been fully locked down as a result of a positive test.
Inmates at the state's correctional facilities are currently being tested on a rotating basis every six weeks and employees are being tested every two weeks. According to the department's COVID-19 tracker, no inmates in Vermont's prison system are known to be currently infected, though two members of a probation and parole office tested positive for the virus last week.
Mandy Conte, an inmate at Chittenden Regional, told Seven Days she heard about the positive test on Monday, but she said that officials did not formally notify the prison population until Wednesday afternoon.
"There's no communication whatsoever," she said earlier that day. "There's no guidance. None."
Prisoners received meals and medication later than usual on Tuesday and Wednesday, Conte said, and have been barred from using communal space, such as day rooms.
"It's discouraging because we're forced to remain in our cells," she said. "We don't get visitations. It's the holidays. It's just difficult. It's hard on everyone emotionally. The anxiety that comes with being locked in a cell all day is intense."
Ashley Messier, executive director of the Women's Justice & Freedom Initiative, criticized the Department of Corrections on Wednesday for waiting days to test the entire facility and for failing to be more transparent with inmates about the positive test.
But according to Feldman, providing partial information would have been irresponsible. "Until we can give people all the information, we run the risk of creating more fear," she said. "Our job is to keep people safe, and we communicate as soon as we have all the information necessary to give people as much detail as possible."
Messier also called on the department to immediately release those who are incarcerated for furlough and parole violations in order to keep them safe from the virus.
"This pandemic is not going away," Messier said. "We need to be responsible in our response to COVID-19 as there's a national and state uptick in positive COVID cases. We really encouraged DOC to release as many prisoners as possible."
She added, "These are human beings, and these are people's moms and daughters and wives and girlfriends. These are people who cannot quarantine, who cannot socially distance."