Jim Kenyon: Locked Out of Out-of-State Prison

Wednesday, September 30, 2015
I’ve always assumed the hard part about prison was finding a way out. I had no idea that getting into prison would be so hard.

I’ll start at the beginning:

In June, the Vermont Department of Corrections moved 300 inmates to a for-profit prison in northern Michigan. The prison is operated by GEO Group Inc., a Florida-based equity real estate investment trust. Whatever that is.

Why the state of Vermont would leave the rehabilitation of hundreds of its prisoners to a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange is beyond me. As is, why a real estate investment trust would have any interest in preparing inmates for their successful re-entry into the outside world. Not when it has shareholders to please.

The mere concept of for-profit prisons defies logic. GEO only gets paid when its prison beds are occupied. It’s not in the financial interests of the company — or its shareholders — to work toward keeping people out of prison.

Since the state’s arrangement with GEO is costing Vermont taxpayers roughly $6.6 million a year, I thought it would be worthwhile to check out in person what’s happening at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Mich.

This wouldn’t be my first out-of-state prison visit. Shortly after Vermont started shipping inmates to distant jailhouses to save money in the late 1990s, I made a trip to Jarratt, Va.

I spent a few days interviewing Vermont inmates in an office inside the Greensville Correctional Center. Escorted by a prison supervisor, I meandered through the inmates’ living quarters and the outdoor recreation yard. I walked through solitary confinement, but avoided death row. (Greensville is home to Virginia’s execution chamber.)

Valley News editors, as well as me, thought it was important to give readers a look at how Vermont inmates were being treated hundreds of miles from home.

Our thinking hasn’t changed.

For nearly 20 years, state lawmakers and governors, starting with Howard Dean, have sold Vermonters on the notion that sending inmates out of state was a cost-saver. Last year, Vermont had 1,600 inmates spread out over seven in-state prisons at an average annual cost of $60,000. GEO, which has 106 prisons worldwide in its portfolio, charges $22,600 per inmate.

But what elected officials don’t talk about much is the toll that being so far away from home can have on inmates, their families and their future. Elected officials also gloss over the reasons why GEO and other for-profit prison companies are less costly.

“If you don’t provide rehabilitative services, it’s going to be cheaper,” said Burlington attorney Robert Appel. He also told me the for-profit prison companies that Vermont does business with are allowed to “cherry-pick” the inmates that they take off the state’s hands. The for-profit companies prefer inmates who don’t suffer serious or chronic medical conditions. Or anything else that might drive up costs, such as educational classes or job training for inmates.

“They’re just doing dead time,” Appel said. “That’s all it is.”

Appel knows quite a bit about how prisons operate. For eight years, he served as Vermont Defender General. His office was responsible for, among other things, protecting the legal interests of inmates. He did such a good job that Dean didn’t reappoint him when his term expired in the early 2000s.

On Aug. 12, I attended the Legislature’s Justice Oversight Committee’s hearing at the Statehouse intended to shed light on the deaths of three Vermont prison inmates this year. (A fourth inmate has since died at the women’s facility in South Burlington.)

One of the deaths occurred at a for-profit Corrections Corporation of America prison in Kentucky, where 250 Vermont inmates were held before being moved to Michigan.

James Nicholson, 66, died May 18, a few weeks after being attacked in a prison bathroom. An autopsy indicated that he died of heart disease and complications from diabetes. But the medical examiner in Kentucky couldn’t determine whether the fractured skull and other injuries suffered in the attack were factors in Nicholson’s death.

All the more reason, I thought, to check out conditions in Michigan.

DOC Commissioner Andy Pallito asked that I put my request in writing. I did, on Aug. 13. I haven’t heard much since. Two weeks ago, Pallito quietly resigned as DOC commissioner to take another job in state government.

Last week, DOC said my “request for access to the North Lake Correctional Facility was presented to the GEO Group.” To find out more, I needed to contact GEO’s public information office, said DOC. Nevermind that the office’s website lists no contact names or phone numbers.

Why should a real estate investment trust in Florida be deciding whether the media can visit Vermont inmates in Michigan?

It’s fairly simple.

DOC prefers not to think of out-of-state inmates as its problem. Out of state, out of mind.

As for Vermont’s elected officials, they don’t really sweat what’s going on 850 miles away in the Midwest. Inmates and their families have little clout. I’m guessing they’re not big campaign donors, either.

Meanwhile, GEO has little interest in allowing the media to glimpse what goes on inside its prison walls. It’s a private company that does the public’s business without any obligation to be transparent.

Last Thursday, I emailed GEO’s headquarters in Boca Raton, Fla., about setting up a visit. I haven’t heard back. Maybe I’d have better luck reaching them on Wall Street.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.