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Jim Kenyon: Out-of-State Prisoners Moved to Pennsylvania

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

On paper, Vermont taxpayers got a heckuva deal when the state transferred 270 inmates to a Pennsylvania prison last month.

It costs roughly $60,000 a year to keep a male offender behind bars in Vermont. Meanwhile, the state of Pennsylvania is charging Vermont $26,280 annually per inmate. That’s quite a savings.

Or is Vermont just being penny-wise and pound foolish? It could take a few years to find out. By then, I’m afraid, the damage will already have been done.

Pennsylvania can warehouse prisoners on the cheap largely because of economy of scale. The Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, where Vermont inmates are being kept, is eight times the size of Vermont’s biggest prison, the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport.

With 3,449 inmates, Camp Hill, which is outside Harrisburg, was operating at 105 percent of capacity — and that was before Vermonters arrived — according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections website.

The state currently has more than 46,000 offenders locked up in 25 prisons. According to Pennsylvania DOC’s most recent monthly report, the prison system is at 103 percent of “operational capacity.”

In a telephone interview, Amy Worden, the department’s press secretary, assured me that was nothing to worry about. The capacity numbers represent a facility’s “optimum number of inmates,” the department’s website states. But it “does not mean a prison is overcrowded or that security or treatment ability is compromised.”

Although Vermont inmates arrived at Camp Hill from Michigan a month ago, I’ve yet to talk with any by phone. They’re limited to one 15-minute call every four days. In Vermont, inmates — at least, those who have the money for it — can talk daily with family and friends, keeping them in regular contact with their support network. (The same was true in Michigan.)

But it’s tough to get to a phone at Camp Hill (or Camp Hell, as detractors call it) when you’re locked in a cell for 20 hours a day. Vermont DOC officials say cell and phone restrictions will ease once Pennsylvania has completed security risk assessments on each inmate.

Some rules are unlikely to change, including one that limits Vermont prisoners, who are housed separately from Pennsylvania inmates, to a three-minute shower each day. As a result, some inmates aren’t using the gym (a good way to blow off steam and keep fit) because they can’t clean up afterwards.

But they are allowed to smoke — a no-no in Vermont prisons, and at the private prison in Michigan. Hardly a positive change, considering the health consequences, along with the fact that many offenders had substance abuse problems to begin with.

In their letters, inmates have relayed stories about encounters with physically and verbally abusive guards. Vermont DOC officials also have heard the stories, but say they’re unsubstantiated. (On the plus side, inmates tell me the food is good.)

Why should Vermonters care about how its prisoners are treated out of state?

After all, they’re usually felons serving lengthy sentences. They’re just getting what they deserve, the argument goes.

For starters, it’s shortsighted.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, at least 95 percent of all state prisoners will be released at some point. Many of the Vermonters being kept out-of-state eventually will come home to live and work.

If Vermont inmates leave Pennsylvania more broken than they arrived, it won’t benefit anyone.

The DOC’s decision, made with the blessing of Gov. Phil Scott and the Legislature, to give Pennsylvania up to $10.5 million a year to incarcerate as many as 400 inmates has criminal justice experts such as Robert Appel shaking their heads.

“We’re prohibiting rather than promoting rehabilitation, which is a core function of government,” said Appel, who worked on behalf of prisoners during his eight years as Vermont’s defender general. “We shouldn’t be shipping them out of state. It’s doing nothing to help their successful re-integration into Vermont, once they’re released.”

Vermont has used out-of-state prisons (Pennsylvania is the eighth) for the last 20 years to reduce overcrowding at home.

But this deal is a bit different. Vermont and Pennsylvania have entered into what’s called an Interstate Corrections Compact. The arrangement gives Pennsylvania the power to “treat (Vermont inmates) as their own,” Dominic Damato, Vermont DOC’s out-of-state manager, told me.

That’s a bit worrisome — particularly when it comes to the use of solitary confinement, an area where Pennsylvania has less than a sterling record.

In 2013, the U.S. Justice Department opened an investigation into the state’s use of solitary on prisoners with serious mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities. The investigation closed last April, after the state took reform steps.

Yet six months later, a federal judge had to step in to force Pennsylvania to release Arthur Johnson, a 63-year-old mentally disabled inmate, from solitary. He was allegedly locked in a 7-by-12-foot cell almost around the clock for 36 years.

Vermont DOC Deputy Commissioner Mike Touchette is visiting Camp Hill later this week. He’ll meet with Pennsylvania prison officials and talk face-to-face with Vermont inmates.

I hope to do the same — soon. In December 2015, I visited the private prison in Baldwin, Mich., where 250 Vermont inmates were kept before the state struck its Pennsylvania deal. During a three-day visit, I toured the prison and conducted one-on-one interviews with a dozen inmates.

After initially denying my request last week to do something similar, Pennsylvania told me on Tuesday that it would try to make arrangements.

We’ll see what happens. If the Pennsylvania authorities prove to be less than transparent, who deserves the blame — Pennsylvania, or the state that appears willing to surrender control over how its inmates are treated?

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