For going on 20 years, Vermont has had more inmates than prison cells. To get around the overcrowding problem, the Department of Corrections — with the blessing of legislators and several governors — has shipped hundreds of prisoners to other states.
Farming out offenders to faraway places where they have little contact with families has always made Vermont liberals a bit uneasy. The state compounded their discomfort by contracting with private prison companies that depend on keeping as many people behind bars as possible to make money.
But just when it seemed the bring-our-inmates-home movement was gaining momentum — the Legislature is considering a proposal that would ban the use of private prisons — along came, yes, Donald Trump.
To explain: Last December, the GEO Group, a Florida company with more than 100 prisons worldwide, announced it was ending its contract with the state that expires June 15.
Vermont currently keeps 270 inmates at a large GEO prison in northern Michigan. The North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Mich., which I visited in December 2015, has more than 1,700 beds. But for the last couple of years, Vermont has been GEO’s only customer there.
With less than 20 percent of North Lake’s beds filled, I suspect that GEO wasn’t making money — or at least not as much as its shareholders would have liked — on the prison that cost tens of millions to build in late 1990s.
Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, a nonprofit headed by former state legislator Suzi Wizowaty, of Burlington, has proposed releasing offenders being held in-state to make room for those now in Michigan.
“The ultimate goal is to end unnecessary incarceration,” Wizowaty told me, referring to nonviolent offenders and others who have completed their sentences but can’t find suitable housing.
The law-and-order crowd, however, asserts that reducing the state’s prison population further could jeopardize public safety. Since 2010, Vermont has gone from 2,250 total inmates to 1,786 (including 156 women).
The state has been scrambling to find an affordable alternative to GEO’s North Lake. No easy task.
GEO charges about $23,000 year per inmate — significantly less than the $62,000 or so a year that Vermont taxpayers spend on in-state prisoners.
GEO is able to do it on the cheap because Vermont doesn’t require the company to provide any rehabilitative, educational or mental health services to speak of. From what I could tell during my visit, the prison was basically a large warehouse with razor wire.
In a tight budget year, I suspect Gov. Phil Scott and lawmakers would be content to keep 270 inmates in Michigan — GEO willing.
And due to a recent turn of events, the company just might be. That’s where Trump figures in.
As we all know, the president is obsessed with deporting as many of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants that Immigration and Customs Enforcement can round up.
But it can take months — even years — for deportation cases to work their way through U.S. immigration courts. In the meantime, ICE needs some place to hold detainees.
It’s been rumored that ICE is considering North Lake as a potential detainees’ holding pen (one of many, I’m sure).
In an email, Pablo Paez, GEO’s vice president of corporate relations, told me on Tuesday that the company had “no concrete plans” to bring in detainees. Or, for that matter, to house Vermont inmates beyond June, he said.
But a newspaper report out of northern Michigan indicates otherwise. Last week, the Lake County Star reported the Baldwin Village Council had signed documents that call for GEO to spend roughly $6 million to repair and expand the town’s wastewater treatment plant.
How generous. And odd, if GEO is truly considering mothballing the prison.
The infrastructure upgrades are needed to “accommodate a ramp-up of prisoners” at North Lake, the newspaper reported.
Along with housing hundreds of immigrant detainees, GEO “intends on keeping Vermont prisoners,” Baldwin Village President James Truxton told the paper.
I asked Vermont Department of Corrections Commissioner Lisa Menard if that was the case. “We are not in final negotiations with anyone,” she emailed back.
No need to rush, I guess. The state still has nearly three months before inmates are evicted from Michigan.
Vermont would seem to have some bargaining leverage with GEO, the country’s second-largest private prison company.
According to Truxton, the Baldwin Village president, GEO could make $70 million to $90 million a year if North Lake is filled to capacity.
It’s not just a matter of filling cells, though. To make the numbers work, GEO needs cheap laborers to toil in the prison’s laundry and kitchen. Prisons typically pay inmates $1 to $3 a day to do those kind of jobs.
But detainees aren’t inmates. GEO has run into legal problems when it filled low-paying jobs at its government-contracted detention centers with detainees.
“We have a name for locking people up and forcing them to do real work without wages,” Carl Takei, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project, told the Los Angeles Times in 2015. “It’s called slavery.”
The bottom line: For GEO to rake in millions through Trump’s crackdown on undocumented workers, it likely needs Vermont inmates to provide cheap labor.
So, under this scenario, Vermont prisoners not only would not be coming home, they’ll serve as pawns in Trump’s war on immigrants. I wonder how Vermont liberals will feel about that.
Jim Kenyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.