- David Junkin
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott announced on March 2 that correctional staff would be among those next in line for a coronavirus vaccine. But he had a different message for their charges, saying inmates, "like the rest of us," would need to "wait their turn."
For many, it was already too late. That same evening, the state revealed that an outbreak at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport had spread to more than 120 inmates, the most inside a Vermont prison since the pandemic began.
"This is a significant and critical event," interim Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker said at a press conference, "and it's requiring all hands on deck."
The outbreak has once again demonstrated the vulnerability of prisons to the coronavirus and has renewed pressure on the Scott administration to give priority to inmates as it rolls out the long-awaited vaccines. State officials have so far resisted, citing a moral obligation to preserve life by protecting those most likely to die of COVID-19. But prisoner advocates say Vermont has made repeated exceptions to this rule without offering a good reason to keep inmates off the list. The state has a duty to protect those in its care, advocates say, and the Newport situation shows the perils of further delay.
"These are people that cannot keep themselves safe. They cannot choose to isolate themselves in ways that the rest of us can," said Brenda Siegel, a southern Vermont activist who has long advocated on behalf of the prison population. "Their sentence did not include COVID-19. One hundred percent, this outbreak is on Phil Scott. He had the tools and the power to prevent this, and he chose not to."
When state leaders released an initial draft of their vaccine rollout plan last November, people in group living settings such as nursing homes and prisons were among those first in line. But the Scott administration removed inmates from the list after learning that the federal government would be sending fewer doses than anticipated.
Since then, Vermont's vaccination plan has targeted two main groups: those most likely to die — the elderly and people with chronic medical conditions — and those most likely to get infected, beginning with health care workers and emergency responders. The state has expanded criteria for both of these groups in recent weeks as the vaccine supply has grown; by month's end, eligible Vermonters will include teachers, corrections officers, childcare providers and people above the age of 16 with certain chronic conditions.
While some states have excluded inmates from their plans entirely, Vermont has instead treated them like the rest of the population, allowing them to get vaccinated if they meet the age requirements. Only 37 people within Vermont's in-state prison system have been vaccinated so far, but officials say many more will soon be eligible due to chronic conditions. People ages 16 and older with chronic conditions can start signing up this week.
Advocates say the state's plan lacks the necessary urgency. "For too long, the governor has ignored the fact that incarcerated Vermonters are at heightened risk of harm," James Lyall, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, said in a statement last week. "That approach is dangerous and inhumane."
Health experts warned at the start of the pandemic that prisons would be hotbeds for the coronavirus, and data compiled by the Associated Press and the Marshall Project, a journalism nonprofit focused on criminal justice, have confirmed that theory. More than 380,000 prisoners — one in every four — have tested positive nationwide, a rate four times higher than the general population.
Similar disparities have played out in Vermont. More than 410 of the state's 1,250 inmates overall have tested positive. One hundred and eighty-five cases are attributed to an August outbreak among Vermont's out-of-state prison population housed at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Mississippi, a state that is also not giving priority to inmates.
But the Newport outbreak has spiked Vermont's in-state case count, too, and roughly one in every five in-state inmates has now tested positive — nearly 10 times the rate of the general population.
"Every time I hear the governor say [in] the last number of months that you can't join people from other households, I wonder how people who are less in control of their situation — people who are incarcerated or people who are in homeless shelters — can possibly comply," said Michael Fisher, chief health care advocate at Vermont Legal Aid, who sits on the panel charged with forming the state's vaccination plan. Fisher said the state has a "special responsibility" to inmates and should vaccinate them at the same time as correctional staff.
It wouldn't take much: Vermont would need to use just 7 percent of its weekly vaccine supply to get a shot in the arm of every one of its 1,070 inmates.
Explaining why the state hasn't taken that step, Scott said last Friday that giving priority to inmates would require that the state divert doses from people with chronic conditions. At that same press briefing, however, he said vaccinating teachers would not come at the expense of the most vulnerable. "This is an extra supply that we found that we had that we weren't anticipating," he said.
Asked to explain those seemingly conflicting stances, Scott deflected, pointing out that dozens of other groups have lobbied the state for a place higher on the list. "Every category, every situation, every profession — we have dozens and dozens and dozens of people who want to be put in the front of the line, even before the offender population," he said.
"We work on data and science," he added, "and the data doesn't prove the fact that [inmates] are more susceptible [to dying] than anyone else."
Vermont is the only state not to report any inmate COVID-19 deaths to date. But advocates and families of inmates argue that the state isn't considering other groups — such as teachers — by the same criteria, leading them to believe that the Scott administration is allowing politics to influence its decisions.
"Inmates are, in a lot of the population's eyes, less important," said Marny Lewis, whose husband, Michael Lewis, is incarcerated at the Newport prison.
The Scott administration has argued that Vermont can still shield prisons while conserving doses by immunizing prison staff, since that should theoretically cut down on the ways in which the virus can enter the facility; the Department of Corrections has restricted access to prisons throughout the pandemic by reducing contracted services and suspending all in-person visits. A total of 81 prison workers have been infected since the pandemic began, including 16 in the recent Newport outbreak.
"Once we take care of that, we should be able to clear up the problem," Scott said.
Scott's decision to prioritize correctional staff over inmates clashes with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is encouraging states to vaccinate both groups simultaneously because of their "shared increased risk of disease." The defend-the-perimeter approach also has clear limitations. The state will not be mandating that corrections employees be immunized, and experience from other sectors suggests that some will turn down the vaccine. That means prisoners could still come into contact with unvaccinated workers who are unwittingly carrying the virus, raising the chances of an outbreak. Acknowledging as much last Friday, Scott said no approach was foolproof. "Even the vaccine itself isn't 100 percent effective," he said.
The benefit of vaccinating prisons extends beyond the facilities themselves, advocates say, because the prison population is constantly in flux.
"Individuals could get picked up on a furlough violation and be put in the facility for a week," said Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George, who for months has been calling for inmates to be vaccinated.
When they are released, they then run the risk of bringing the virus back into their communities. A study from the Prison Policy Initiative, a research nonprofit devoted to reducing mass incarceration, found that outbreaks in jails and prisons across the country contributed to nearly 500,000 additional infections within the greater community between just May and August 2020, with both prison staff and inmates contributing to the spread.
"The best answer is to vaccinate everyone," said Fisher, the Vermont Legal Aid attorney.
It's hard to know whether corrections leaders share that view. Baker, the interim commissioner, refused to say at a press conference last week whether he had pushed the governor to vaccinate all inmates, saying only that he was "advocating all the time" for the prison system. He said more and more prisoners would be vaccinated in the coming weeks.
Corrections officials say the Newport outbreak has slowed in recent days; another round of testing last Thursday revealed only eight additional cases. But inmates remain concerned for their safety.
On Monday, a St. Johnsbury defense attorney filed emergency motions seeking the release of two clients due to the danger posed by the outbreak. And several family members who spoke to Seven Days last week said their loved ones have shared troubling accounts of the scene inside the prison.
"My husband's scared to death," said Marny Lewis, noting that he has so far managed to avoid getting infected. "It's basically a cesspool of COVID-19."
Others haven't been so lucky. "My whole body hurts," Scott Favreau wrote in an email to his mother late last month after testing positive. "My throat is sore. My head hurts so bad I want to smash it off something."
Another mother — who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution against her infected son — said she had initially supported the Scott administration's vaccine rollout plan, viewing it as a levelheaded approach. But the outbreak has shown her it was a mistake not to vaccinate prisoners first, she said, and state leaders' refusal to change course after the fact has left her with only one takeaway.
"I hate to say it," she said, "but I think that these people just don't matter very much to them."