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Editorial: Vermont Should Stop Shipping Prison Inmates Out of State

Saturday, November 30, 2013
Vermont considers itself a pretty enlightened place, and in many ways, it is. But it also has its blind spots. One of them was cast in sharp relief last week in a report that highlighted Vermont’s practice of shipping prison inmates out of state to be incarcerated in privately run, for-profit correctional facilities. This ought to be halted sooner rather than later, and not merely so the state can look at itself in the progressive mirror again. As a matter of public policy, it is inhumane, expensive and counterproductive.

The report was released by a North Carolina-based organization called Grassroots Leadership, which describes itself as a social justice organization. It points out that Vermont is one of four states that export inmates to for-profit prisons, the others being California, Hawaii and Idaho. Vermont currently has about 450 inmates at the Lee Adjustment Center in Kentucky and another 30 at the Florence Correctional Center in Arizona, both operated by the Corrections Corporation of America. This represents nearly 23 percent of Vermont’s total inmate population.

Kentucky, of course, is a thousand miles away from here, and Arizona, 2,500. The distance involved almost inevitably means that inmates’ ties with family and community are radically diminished, making rehabilitation more difficult and recidivism more likely. Moreover, the practice punishes families who have done nothing wrong and want only to help a father, a brother, a son get his life back on track.

Sheer distance also impedes inmates’ access to legal counsel and erects barriers to effective oversight by state correctional officials. This is important, because privately operated correctional facilities deserve the strictest scrutiny, given that their financial interest lies in keeping as many Americans as possible behind bars. Under Vermont’s current contract with CCA, which runs from 2011 to 2015, the state has authorized payment of up to $61.7 million to the company to house inmates, according to the report. It includes per diem increases for each year of the contract and incentives for the state not to allow the occupancy rate at either prison to fall below 95 percent.

Vermont undertook this trafficking in human misery in 2004 in the name of alleviating prison overcrowding. Not long after 400 Vermont inmates arrived at the Lee Adjustment Center and outdoor recreation time was cut back, prisoners there rioted and set two buildings afire. Four years later, State Auditor Douglas Hoffer reported that the CCA institutions lacked the rehabilitative programs offered by the Vermont Department of Corrections, including those related to mental health, substance abuse, sexual abuse and violent offenders.

As we have said before in this context, if the state undertakes to deprive residents of their freedom, it has a solemn obligation to ensure that they are incarcerated under humane conditions that provide the best opportunity possible for them to become useful members of society. Farming out that obligation to entrepreneurs whose sole reason for being is to put into practice the theory that crime pays is wrong both as a matter of conscience and a matter of prudence.

Between now and June 2015, when its current contract with CCA expires, Vermont should commit itself to reducing its overall inmate population sufficiently to bring all prisoners home from distant states. This can be accomplished by placing more reliance on treatment for underlying substance abuse issues and alternative sentencing for many other offenses. The goal should be to lock up only those offenders who truly need to be segregated from society for a time and give them the help they need to rehabilitate themselves. This is best accomplished close to home.

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