Is Vermont's prison pandemic playbook worth copying?

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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - Known, active coronavirus infections in Vermont's corrections system are down nearly 1,000 percent over the last forty days - from 48 inmates and staff to just five.

Vermont's efforts to contain coronavirus in lockdown may provide a playbook for the rest of the nation. (Source: Gray DC)

Do Vermont's results offer a playbook for the rest of the nation?

"It's beautiful being out," said recent parolee Kevin Beaupre.

He's re-adjusting to freedom, released in late-April after spending years behind bars for assault and armed robbery.

"Prison life is kind of different than life out here," he said, "but when the coronavirus hit, it was totally different, it was even more scary."

Beaupre said the last month of his sentence felt the longest; containing the contagion meant 23-hours-a-day in his cell.

But, he said he appreciates steps the Vermont Department of Corrections took to protect health. "I think they did an incredible job," he said.

Most notably, Vermont:
- Moved a surge of positive inmates to an isolated wing of one facility - and put staff there up in a hotel to prevent them from bringing the virus home.
- Is releasing more offenders - like Beaupre -- who reached their minimum sentence and complete required programming.
- Tested everyone in facilities with at least on case, and plans to cover the rest soon.

"Those are exactly the kind of things that we're recommending," said Liesl Hagan, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hagan leads a task force developing guidance for handling coronavirus behind bars. The agency recently made a visit to Vermont, and requested data from states across the country.

But, Hagan said broad guidelines need to be tailored to fit local circumstances, "If you've been to one prison or one jail, you've been to one prison or one jail."

Megan Quattlebaum with the Council of State Governments, said strong or weak results aren't necessarily a reflection of how well a state has responded to the crisis. "Some of them have the ability to do things that others don't," she said.

Quattlebaum said prison overcrowding and facility design make it nearly impossible for some states to follow best practices. States are dealing with different levels of infection within their communities outside prison walls. She said further differences in how states test prison populations and report their data make drawing comparisons problematic.

And, what's currently working for states like Vermont, may not in the not-so-distant future. "These are not forever solutions," she said.

Prisoners can't stay on permanent lockdown, and emergency funds will eventually run dry. With state economies and budgets strained by coronavirus fallout, prisons everywhere will need to find ways to protect the public and inmate health while simultaneously cutting costs.

This story will be updated.

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