Nearly 150 Vermont inmates housed inside a private Mississippi prison have tested positive for COVID-19, but data posted online by the state Department of Corrections shows only 14 inmates infected in that prison.
Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law, said fear is spreading just as fast as COVID. “We have been told in some cases, inmates are moving people to quarantine because the guards don’t want to touch them,” he said. “Families are terrified.” Shellie Brooks-Carter said her son, who is an inmate at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, passed out in the COVID-19 unit’s kitchen, where he was preparing food for quarantined inmates.
Family members have been expressing concern about how COVID is being handled inside the prisons in Mississippi.
Shellie Brooks-Carter said her son, who is an inmate at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, passed out in the COVID-19 unit’s kitchen, where he was preparing food for quarantined inmates.
“Put yourself in the shoes of the inmates … with a life-threatening virus such as COVID-19,” she wrote Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain. “Would you want to be housed in such deplorable conditions with nothing?”
Vermont tests all inmates for the virus, but Mississippi is only testing those who appear to have symptoms.
Of the 558 inmates being held at the private prison, Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi, 219 are actually inmates from Vermont.
When six Vermont inmates returned from Mississippi, they tested positive.
That prompted the Vermont Department of Corrections to seek testing for the rest of the Vermont inmates in Mississippi.
Interim Vermont Corrections Commissioner James Baker said 147 inmates tested positive for COVID-19, 62 tested negative, and eight inmates refused to get tested.
“In hindsight, as the commissioner of Corrections, on this particular issue, I should have been more inquisitive and I should have been more aware of processes in Mississippi and asked more questions to clarify because clearly where we sit now with the number of positive tests something went wrong,” he told reporters.
Baker shared his disgruntlement with CoreCivic, which operates the Mississippi prison: “I cannot overstate how frustrated I am that someone that runs a jail system like that wasn’t aware of the things that we were aware of in little old Vermont that we’re able to keep our facilities as clean as they are.”
Ryan Gustin, manager for public affairs at CoreCivic, defended the private prison’s practices.
CoreCivic officials are following Mississippi’s lead in testing only inmates that show symptoms, telling Vermont officials that none of the six inmates who tested positive had showed any symptoms.
“We have rigorously followed the guidance of local, state and federal health authorities, as well as our government partners,” he said. “CoreCivic is working hard to protect our employees, those entrusted to our care, and our communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Asked if Mississippi prisons should test all inmates, spokeswoman Liz Sharlot replied that the state Department of Health “works closely with our prison and jails to prevent all kinds of communicable diseases — many times in guidance. We believe testing should be around symptoms and case contacts.”
Johnson said top experts the MacArthur Justice Center has consulted believe that only testing inmates with symptoms can work where an aggressive screening policy is in place.
“Because such protocols are difficult to implement and execute in large facilities, and because the traditional passive ‘sick call’ process used prior to the pandemic is not designed to respond to a crisis such as this,” he said, “prisons and jails across the country now are testing all staff and incarcerated persons.”
That, however, has yet to happen in Mississippi, he said.
Freelance journalist Ed Connolly contributed to this report.
Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that is exposing wrongdoing, educating and empowering Mississippians, and raising up the next generation of investigative reporters.
Email him at Jerry.Mitchell.MCIR@gmail.com and follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.