Corrections commissioner responds to concerns of Newport inmates’ families

Published: Mar. 11, 2021 at 6:28 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - While the COVID outbreak at the Newport prison continues to smolder, Corrections officials say the key to preventing another is vaccinating DOC staff across the state. So far, almost 80% of Vermont’s corrections officers have been vaccinated. But as infections continue, inmates and their families are coming forward with complaints about conditions.

Vicki Favreau and Trina Barrett are both moms of Northern State Correctional Facility inmates.

“These guys are human beings,” said Favreau. “Yes, they’re in jail because they did something wrong, but they deserve to be treated...”

“Like human beings,” interjected Barrett.

“Yeah, better than what they are,” added Favreau.

The women’s sons are two of the total 145 inmates who’ve contracted COVID-19 during the outbreak. “I’ve been hearing so many things that are just scaring me,” Barrett said.

The women are among dozens of family members who have told us they are worried the state isn’t treating the Newport facility like a hospital, as promised. “What else can we do? Our hands are basically tied,” Favreau said.

“I have a deep appreciation for the concerns of families on any given day, and we work with families all the time to mitigate issues that they hear from their loved ones in jail,” said DOC Commissioner Jim Baker.

A key concern among families is whether staff moved healthy inmates into cells previously inhabited by COVID-positive inmates without sanitizing the space first. They also want to know if some corrections officers aren’t wearing proper PPE.

“What I can assure people of is that we followed CDC guidelines in cleaning those cells before we put other people in. That includes mopping and wiping down with cleaning solutions, the touch-points inside the cells,” Baker said.

Reporter Christina Guessferd: Was there any wrongdoing on the part of prison staff that resulted in this exponential spread.

Jim Baker: From what we have seen, I have not seen anything when I’m briefed that I’m concerned about.

Many inmates’ loved ones also fear the lockdown is taking a significant toll on their mental health because are rarely permitted to leave the cells. Baker says during times like these, he has to make tough decisions that are the least damaging. “In order to stop the spread, you have to separate people and keep them apart. Do I understand that that has a negative psychological effect on the folks who are in my custody? Absolutely,” he said.

But Favreau and Barrett say they’re still struggling to believe Baker. “They’re our babies, you know? And it’s sad that we can’t do anything for them,” Barrett said.

The DOC says 37 in-state inmates who fall within the eligibility guidelines have received the vaccine, but that the state is sticking by the age banding approach to vaccinate the rest. Baker says despite the 10 total new cases reported Thursday among inmates and staff, he’s confident the virus is contained. Baker says the contact tracing team determined the outbreak originated in one area of the campus. He says only two buildings of the six are impacted at this time.

“How is that contained? That’s what I don’t understand, either,” Barrett said.

No inmates have died or experienced life-threatening symptoms during the outbreak, but many report flu-like symptoms, including headache, sore throat, body aches, and low-grade fevers.

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COVID outbreak at Vermont prison slows

Corrections commissioner calls Vermont prison outbreak a ‘crisis’

Critics say Newport prison outbreak could have been avoided

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