Editorial: Vt. Must Ensure Safety of Inmates in Any New Prison Deal

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Vermont corrections officials reportedly have received inquiries from two potential bidders interested in housing the 260 Vermont inmates now incarcerated at the Camp Hill state prison in Pennsylvania.

That there is an urgent necessity to remove the Vermonters from the abusive and unsafe conditions at Camp Hill was underscored just this past week when the alternative weekly Seven Days reported on a new, as yet unverified, allegation of poor treatment. An inmate serving a sentence in connection with a 2014 drug-related robbery asserts that he was held in solitary confinement at Camp Hill for more than the 30 days Vermont law allows in retaliation for contacting the paper late last year about the circumstances surrounding the death there of another Vermont inmate.

Vermont corrections officials are said to be reviewing that claim, while their counterparts in Pennsylvania appear to tacitly confirm it by contending that because their contract with Vermont allows disciplinary segregation, they are free to determine its length.

In deciding earlier this year to abandon Camp Hill and seek new proposals to house the Vermont inmates, corrections officials said the goal would be to make sure that they are treated in accordance with Vermont correctional standards, something the current contract with Pennsylvania does not ensure.

That is encouraging, but not necessarily reassuring. Corrections Commissioner Lisa Menard has declined to identify the prison operators that have expressed interest, or even to say whether they are public, state-run systems or private prison companies.

While the Pennsylvania experience has highlighted the potential problems of contracting with another state’s prison system, dealing with private companies could be highly problematic.

A recent New York Times account detailed how a few big players have largely cornered the private-prison market using aggressive legal strategies, complicated financial arrangements and generous campaign contributions. Private prisons now house 9 percent of the nation’s prisoners — this despite a federal study indicating that they are more dangerous for both inmates and guards than government-run facilities; evidence that constitutional violations are frequent; and findings that the savings to taxpayers are small to nonexistent.

Some states have also had problems extricating themselves from costly contracts.

Of the three largest private prison companies, two — GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) — have previously housed Vermont’s out-of-state inmates, with mixed results. (Those two also combined to give nearly a half million dollars to Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy and inauguration, largesse that was repaid handsomely a month into the Trump administration when the Justice Department rescinded a 2016 order to phase out the use of private prisons. The intention now is to expand their use.)

Implementing Vermont standards in any new contract is likely to cost more than under the existing Pennsylvania agreement, but that should not stand in the way of redressing the current deplorable situation. And the state must insist that a new contract contain explicit provisions for close oversight by Vermont officials.

In the end, though, the only long-term answer to ensuring humane treatment of Vermont inmates is to house them in Vermont facilities, where the conditions are subject to governmental and public scrutiny. As we have noted before, if the state insists on habitually incarcerating more people than it has space for — Vermont inmates have been shipped out of state for more than 20 years due to lack of beds— then it has a moral obligation to spend the money necessary to enlarge and staff existing facilities, or to build new ones.

Even better would be to step up efforts to reduce the state’s prison population through alternatives to incarceration.