Editorial: Vermont Must Not Fail Inmates Again

Saturday, March 03, 2018

The Scott administration is finally moving to end its arrangement with Pennsylvania under which 260 Vermont inmates are incarcerated at Camp Hill prison — or, as it is not-so-affectionately known among the prisoners, Camp Hell.

Before the Vermonters are shipped to a new facility, though, some questions need to be addressed: Why did it take so long to decide to end the agreement, given multiple reports of abusive treatment? Whose idea was it to send the offenders there in the first place? Did Vermont officials fail to do their due diligence before signing off on the arrangement with Pennsylvania? Were the problems that have surfaced predictable?

We can answer the last one ourselves. Yes, they were perfectly predictable, and in fact were anticipated by our colleague Jim Kenyon soon after the inmates were transferred in June from a privately run prison in Michigan to Camp Hill, which is outside Harrisburg.

As Kenyon noted at the time, the arrangement with Pennsylvania differed in one important respect from previous contracts under which Vermont inmates were sent to out-of-state prisons, a practice that has been going on for more than 20 years because of lack of space in Vermont correctional facilities. Those contracts allowed Vermont to set the rules for how its inmates were treated. The three-year, $21 million deal with Pennsylvania is instead what’s called an “interstate corrections compact,” which means that Pennsylvania is free to mistreat Vermont prisoners as it does its own.

Thus, Vermont inmates incarcerated at Camp Hill have reported abuse and threats of retaliation by guards; have been denied health care, in one appalling case even while an inmate was dying of cancer; are locked in their cells 19 hours a day; and have limited phone privileges, making it difficult if not impossible to communicate with their lawyers or officials in Vermont who could verify claims of mistreatment. And, yes, three Vermont inmates have died while in custody at Camp Hill.

As it turns out, Camp Hill is a high-security facility where new Pennsylvania inmates are evaluated before being transferred elsewhere in that state’s vast prison system, according to VtDigger. Vermont Corrections Commissioner Lisa Menard told the Burlington Free Press recently that, “It’s not a facility, we now see, that is designed for, we believe, long-term housing.” Presumably Vermont corrections representatives visited Camp Hill before they signed on the dotted line, so one wonders what they saw there that convinced them it was suitable.

One distinct possibility is that this decision was based more on budgetary considerations than on the welfare of inmates. As Kenyon pointed out at the time, Pennsylvania is charging Vermont $26,280 annually per inmate, compared with the roughly $60,000 a year it costs to incarcerate a male offender in Vermont. And in January, Deputy Corrections Commissioner Mike Touchette told a legislative committee that budget constraints limited Vermont’s ability to improve conditions for its inmates. “The more demands we place on the receiving state to provide services or follow our policies and procedures, it requires additional staffing, which drives the price up,” he told lawmakers, according to Seven Days.

When officials announced at the end of last month that the state will soon seek proposals from other prison operators to house the Vermont inmates, they said they would seek more control over the conditions under which inmates are held, including more freedom to move within the facility, access to education and other programs, and increased contact with their families.

That is as it should be, but those responsible for this debacle need to be held accountable. Many of the prisoners held at Camp Hill are serving long sentences, often for serious offenses. But many of them also will be living back in Vermont communities eventually, and the cause of rehabilitation is never served by mistreatment.

Moreover, it’s not all about those inmates; it’s about all the rest of us, too. How those in custodial care —such as prison inmates, endangered children or the mentally ill — are treated is a good measure of how humane a society is and how well it pursues its own best interests. Vermont has failed in this instance, and needs to do better — and be better — next time around.