A new contract to house prisoners out of state may require Vermont to commit to paying for a minimum number of beds.
The requirement for a new agreement could be 250 inmates, according to officials.
The potential minimum has lawmakers and advocates concerned that inmates would be sent out of state to meet the quota, even if space were available in Vermont prisons.
The state is in advanced negotiations with the state of Pennsylvania to send Vermont inmates to a prison there, according to officials and legislators. However, a Vermont Department of Corrections official said the state is still considering options with several other potential providers — all of which also would require a minimum number of beds.
As of this week, there are 270 Vermont inmates held at a private facility in Michigan.
For decades, Vermont has contracted with companies or states to hold inmates at prisons elsewhere because of limited capacity within in-state facilities. However, there has been a push to decrease the out-of-state program in recent years, and inmate numbers dipped to 240 last year.
Vermont is seeking a new contract because the current contractor, the GEO Group, said last year it won’t extend the contract that is in place now. The agreement expires in June.
The effort to find a new arrangement has been challenged by a high demand for space in secure facilities. An anticipated increase in demand for prison beds due to changes in federal immigration policies under the Trump administration has driven up costs.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said Wednesday that he does not believe the state has had many choices given the national market pressures.
“It’s a seller’s market,” said Sears, chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Sears said the state remains committed to trying to reduce the number of inmates held elsewhere as much as possible.
According to Sears, Corrections Commissioner Lisa Menard assured him and Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, that the state won’t send inmates to a prison outside Vermont if there are in-state spaces available.
“They will not put people out of state if they don’t need to go out of state,” Sears said.
According to Department of Corrections Facilities Operations Director Mike Touchette, all potential contractors the state has sent inquiries to have had a minimum requirement.
“Vermont’s need for supplemental housing, in comparison to the national demand, is extraordinarily low,” Touchette said in an email Wednesday.
Vermont will continue to try to reduce the number of inmates who are held in out-of-state prisons, he said.
“With a floor, we would pay the amount regardless if the beds were fully utilized, or not. If we find ourselves with an opportunity to bring inmates home to Vermont, but have a population below the floor with the supplemental facility, we will do so,” Touchette said.
Touchette said the state is still considering options from several potential entities to accommodate Vermont inmates outside of DOC facilities. He would not comment on when an agreement may be finalized.
A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections declined to comment on the potential minimum bed requirement.
Suzi Wizowaty, of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, said committing to sending a minimum number of Vermont inmates out of state is “just bad public policy.”
“The writing on the wall here is that we send more people out of state and we close an in-state prison,” Wizowaty said.
Wizowaty said incarcerating people out of state is problematic for several reasons, including because it distances them from community and family — factors that can be very important for reducing recidivism.
Wizowaty advocates for lawmakers to reform the criminal justice system to reduce the number of people incarcerated, which would allow the state to cease using out-of-state prisons.
“I wish I knew what it would take for the Legislature to understand that what we’re doing here is not in our interest, is not helping public safety,” Wizowaty said.
The minimum bed requirement is also opposed by the Vermont State Employees’ Association, according to the union’s executive director, Steve Howard.
“Our basic public policy stance is that the criminal justice system is served more effectively when Vermonters are running the corrections system in Vermont,” Howard said.
The union has concerns the minimum could lead the state to close an in-state prison and utilize more out-of-state beds instead.