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Critics say Newport prison outbreak could have been avoided

Published: Mar. 3, 2021 at 6:45 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 4, 2021 at 4:46 AM EST
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NEWPORT, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont officials are racing to contain what has become the largest coronavirus outbreak in a state prison since the start of the pandemic. Upwards of 127 inmates and 10 staff have now been infected at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, with the number of cases growing six-fold in just the last week.

“I don’t want him to die, because if he does, so do I. It just isn’t right. It just isn’t right,” said Ellie Ingram, whose grandson is an inmate at the Newport prison. “I’m scared. I’m very scared.” The Newport woman says her grandson hasn’t contracted COVID-19 yet, but that she worries his asthma could make matters worse if he does.

The ACLU of Vermont is also insisting something must be done. “This was predictable and it was preventable. Just like the multiple other outbreaks that we’ve seen in Vermont’s prisons over the past year, this did not need to happen,” said James Lyall, the group’s executive director.

He says the current policy that requires inmates to follow the same vaccination age groupings as other Vermonters is “reckless and inhumane,” and he slams Governor Phil Scott for failing to act aggressively. “People in our prisons are members of our families, our communities. None of them were sentenced to suffer or die in a pandemic. Vermonters expect compassionate and responsible government, but in neglecting incarcerated Vermonters and their families, Governor Scott showed neither of those things,” Lyall said.

He says the Scott administration is ignoring the science that proves prison populations are at a heightened danger of harm, just like those in other congregated settings who can’t properly social distance. That’s why he says all of Vermont’s 1,250 inmates in six facilities should get the vaccine immediately.

That said, not a single prisoner has died due to COVID-19 during the pandemic, despite multiple outbreaks.

The Vermont State Employees Union also says the administration doesn’t seem to recognize the risk. Though vaccination registration opens to corrections officers on Monday, VSEA executive director Steve Howard says that decision was long overdue. “I don’t know that the administration officials at the highest level fully appreciate the amount of sacrifice and hard work that the frontline staff has put into preventing massive outbreaks of COVID in these facilities and dealing with them as they have erupted,” he said.

Howard says a mere couple of months ago the union fought the administration over proper PPE. “We had correctional officers who were wearing modified garbage bags,” he said, adding that the Scott administration should have stepped in sooner. He also says many corrections officers continue to live out of campers or hotels to protect their families.

State officials insist the Vermont vaccination strategy continues to protect those most at risk of COVID-19. A spokesperson says vaccinating corrections officers will help keep the virus out of facilities in the future. Officials plan to address their response during a press conference Thursday.

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