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Editorial: Vermont Continues Inmate Mistreatment

Published: 9/18/2018 10:10:04 PM
Modified: 9/18/2018 10:10:16 PM

The Vermont Department of Corrections is planning to transfer next month more than 200 Vermont inmates from a prison in Pennsylvania where they reported being abused and neglected to a privately operated one in Mississippi run by CoreCivic — a company with a history of abusing and neglecting prisoners.

Presumably, this is being done to punish the Vermonters for complaining about conditions at Camp Hill State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania, where they have been warehoused since December 2016 under a contract that has now been terminated early.

The only other explanation we can think of is sheer madness, as James Lyall, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, suggested when he heard the news. “They say the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result,” Lyall said, noting that the same concerns that led to the cancellation of the Pennsylvania contract “apply in full to this latest contract, and Vermonters should question the wisdom of moving inmates from an unacceptable situation to one that is likely to be even worse.”

There’s every reason to be wary of this deal.

Vermont has a history with CoreCivic, which was formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America and which is one of the country’s biggest private prison companies. Vermont prisoners were housed in company facilities in Kentucky and Arizona for about 10 years beginning in 2004, where they were subject to mistreatment and violent assaults that the company was slow to respond to. And as the ACLU noted, CoreCivic has faced multiple lawsuits across the nation alleging conditions such as strip searches conducted en masse, forced labor by immigrant detainees, deficient health care and chronic understaffing.

Maybe that’s why the Corrections Department is declining to release the terms of the contract until it is signed, sealed and delivered. Once the deal is done, public scrutiny becomes meaningless. Absent access to the terms of the agreement, lawmakers ought to press Vermont corrections officials to publicly address several important questions promptly.

■ Does the Mississippi contract guarantee that Vermont inmates will be incarcerated according to Vermont prison standards, including freedom of movement within the facility and the opportunity for educational and other programming, something the Pennsylvania contract did not do?

■ Did Vermont officials do their due diligence in vetting the Mississippi facility? How long did they spend in Mississippi and what did they learn? Thorough vetting is something they apparently failed to do before shipping Vermont inmates to Camp Hill.

■ Why was the CoreCivic facility chosen instead of a facility in Central Falls, R.I., which also bid on the contract and which is about 1,200 miles closer? Was the price per inmate the deciding factor? Distance from Vermont is an important factor in facilitating the ability of family and friends to visit inmates, support that is often vital in helping an inmate to reintegrate into the community upon release and to avoid reoffending.

When asked about the Mississippi contract by VtDigger, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, a member of the Legislature’s Joint Justice Oversight Committee, said, “Frankly we don’t have many choices.”

We respectfully disagree. Vermont has the choice to reduce the incarcerated population sufficiently so as to be able to bring home the out-of-state inmates, who tend to be those convicted of more serious offenses, to serve their sentences in Vermont.

When society deprives citizens of their liberty, it assumes the responsibility of ensuring that they are treated in a humane fashion while incarcerated. The kind of oversight that requires simply cannot be exercised when inmates are housed so far from home.




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