ACLU of Vermont Statement on First Confirmed Case of COVID-19 in State Prison System

MONTPELIER, Vt.–Yesterday Vermont’s Department of Corrections announced the first case of COVID-19 inside the Northern State Correctional Facility, and another person is under observation. This news comes as a growing number of states are taking action to reduce their prison populations to address the heightened risk of COVID-19 spreading to prisoners, workers, and corrections officials, and to the public at large.

The ACLU of Vermont—along with many families of incarcerated Vermonters, public health experts, and law enforcement officials—is calling on the Scott Administration, Vermont’s State’s Attorneys, judges, and legislators to do everything in their power to prevent the rapid spread of the virus by safely reducing the prison population as much as possible.

ACLU of Vermont Executive Director James Duff Lyall: “We are running out of time. While we commend Vermont officials for working to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in state prisons, so far that has not included one of the most essential steps—significantly reducing the number of people confined in close quarters.

In the absence of immediate and decisive action to reduce the prison population, COVID-19 is likely to spread among people in Vermont prisons at a rapid pace. For older and chronically sick prisoners, COVID-19 infection presents a much higher risk of turning even a short period of incarceration into a death sentence. That risk extends to everyone who works in our prisons, as the first case in Newport confirms, and by extension, their families and communities—in short, to all of us.

It is well-known that people in prison are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses. Many of them are nearing the end of their sentence or are in prison simply because they can’t afford bail, or as a result of substance use disorder. They are our family or our neighbors, all members of our community. In this crisis, our collective well-being depends on the health of the person next to us, and the person next to them. We are all in this together, and our actions must reflect that reality.

The ACLU of Vermont, along with a growing number of public health and law enforcement experts, has proposed specific recommendations to reduce the prison population immediately. These steps are more than justified by the current crisis and well within the authority of our elected officials to help ensure the safety and health of all members of our communities. We must not wait any longer.”