The Mississippi Oopsie

Gov. Phil Scott called it a “shortcoming.” I’d put it in the realm of “humanitarian disaster.” He said “we should have pressed harder.” I’d say his administration failed to press at all.

To be fair, Scott’s comments came yesterday, when there were *only* 85 known positive Covid-19 tests among Vermont’s 219 inmates housed in a for-profit Mississippi prison. Today that total jumped to 147.

So maybe now he’d rephrase his remarks. And maybe now his Susan Collins-style disappointment will spark some real action. Maybe some heads will roll.

But I doubt it. That’s not his style. After all, he gave no thought to replacing Melissa Jackson as head of the Vermont Veterans’ Home after she traveled to Washington, D.C. to give Congressional testimony in person (when she could have done it via Zoom) and then, upon returning to Bennington, spent five hours in her office before going into self-quarantine.

Jackson called it “poor judgment” instead of the more appropriate “dereliction of professional responsibility.” And Scott’s comms chief Rebecca Kelley issued a statement saying “the governor is not sure it warrants her removal but certainly deserves additional discussion.”

Yeah, let’s have additional discussion. Maybe appoint a committee or something. Or just express concern and move on. Nothing to see here, folks.

Although the Mississippi prison was contractually bound to abide by Vermont standards for testing inmates and staff, it was in fact following the much looser Mississippi standards. And nobody in the Scott administration noticed until it was too late — until all 219 inmates were exposed to a potentially deadly pandemic and more than two-thirds had tested positive.

And by the way, those unacceptably lax Mississippi standards are identical to those followed in Vermont’s own facilities for weeks after the pandemic hit — and were tightened only after we’d experienced an outbreak of positives at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans.

Let’s recap. The Department of Corrections locked its own barn door after the horse was gone. And it failed to check if the Mississippi prison had secured its own stable.

In short, the DOC made the same mistake twice. This time, the result was three times as many infected inmates.

And this was all under the watch of the acting commissioner, Jim Baker. He seems like a nice guy, and he certainly says the right things about changing the culture of a troubled organization. But c’mon. Prison inmates are under the control of the state of Vermont, which is solely responsible for their health and safety. The state has a moral responsibility to care for them. It has failed to do so when it comes to Covid-19.

The state is currently negotiating a contract extension with CoreCivic, which operates the Mississippi facility. I’m sure Baker and Human Services Secretary Mike Smith will do their best to negotiate a good contract. But can they be trusted to enforce the terms? Can they be trusted to what’s right before a deadly outbreak forces their hand?

Based on their track record, I’d say no.

And I ask: What does it take to get fired in this administration?

Considering Scott’s own position on fixing the prison population, I’d say it takes a lot more than dereliction of duty. The governor’s solution is to build a big new prison “campus” — err, that is, enter into a deal with, you guessed it, CoreCivic — to build the new complex. He’s doubled down on that idea this week.

So, given the fact that the governor hasn’t yet had his fill of CoreCivic, it’s not surprising if he expresses concern about “shortcomings” and continues his tacit policy of retaining administrators who fail to fulfill their responsibilities. (See also: Labor Commissioner Mike Harrington, who was elevated from “interim” to permanent even as he struggled to overcome his department’s mishandling of unemployment claims.)


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