Inside the prison holding Vermont inmates 1,366 miles from home

  • Images show the area near Tallatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Miss., where Vermont inmates are held more than 1,300 miles from the Green Mountain State.

  • Images show the area near Tallatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Miss., where Vermont inmates are held more than 1,300 miles from the Green Mountain State.

  • Images show the area near Tallatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Miss., where Vermont inmates are held more than 1,300 miles from the Green Mountain State.

  • Images show the area near Tallatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Miss., where Vermont inmates are held more than 1,300 miles from the Green Mountain State. VtDigger — Alan Keays

  • Images show the area near Tallatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Miss., where Vermont inmates are held more than 1,300 miles from the Green Mountain State. VtDigger — Alan Keays

  • Images show the area near Tallatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Miss., where Vermont inmates are held more than 1,300 miles from the Green Mountain State. VtDigger — Alan Keays

Published: 2/2/2019 9:58:00 PM
Modified: 2/2/2019 10:00:30 PM

TUTWILER, Miss. — Welcome to M block — the prison unit in Mississippi housing Vermont’s 234 out-of-state prisoners.

The Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility that since the fall has been home to inmates that Vermont does not have the capacity to hold in state. The prison sits on about 200 acres in the rural Mississippi town of Tutwiler.

In the M block, an institutional gray, prefabricated concrete building, Vermont inmates are assigned orange-and-white striped prison uniforms and blue “Croc”-like shoes, and housed two to a cell.

Each cell measures about 7½ feet wide by 14 feet long and 8 feet high. Every cell in housing unit “M” has a sliver of a window that looks out onto fields with a tree line far off in the distance.

There’s no access to the internet or email for inmates here. They do have phones available.

Just a handful of Vermont inmates have had visitors since their arrival in mid-October.

Bradley Burns, a Vermont prisoner sent to Mississippi to serve his sentence, said he’s fine here doing his time as long as they let him keep his television and video gaming system.

When he’s feeling anxious or upset, Burns says he found a way to cope with such frustrations.

“I’ll be cracking out on my Xbox for a couple of hours,” Burns says, adding the distraction of the video competitions gives him an outlet to relieve stress. “Instead of going off or arguing with someone who might look at me sideways I take out my aggressions playing a game.”

Past facilities he’s been in haven’t allowed inmates to use video gaming systems, a policy Burns describes as “foolish,” leading to inmates with more idle time to get into trouble.

Elliot Russell, another Vermont inmate at the Mississippi facility, says he doesn’t eat any of three meals a day prepared by the staff here.

Instead, he said, he opts to use a microwave he shares with another 120 prisoners in his housing unit to heat up his own food he purchases from the commissary.

“The food is terrible here,” Russell said. “It’s better when you make it yourself most of the time.”

Both Burns and Russell are among the 234 Vermont prisoners who have been sent by the Vermont Department of Corrections to serve their prison sentences at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Mississippi.

The facility is run by the Nashville, Tenn.-based CoreCivic, the country’s largest private prison contractor.

The two men have been in the Vermont prison system long enough to have been sent out of state to four different prison facilities, including stints in Kentucky, Michigan, Pennsylvania and now Mississippi.

The prison in Kentucky was run by Corrections Corporation of America, which has since become CoreCivic. The Michigan facility was also run by a private prison company, the GEO Group.

The move by Vermont to sign a contract with CoreCivic drew opposition from some civil rights groups in the state, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, saying that the prison company would put profit over prisoner needs.

Both Russell and Burns agreed that when ranking the locations, Michigan scores the highest and Pennsylvania was by the far the worst. They also say that, at least so far, the Mississippi facility is closer to the top of the list than it is the bottom.

“I’d say Michigan is No. 1 while this is 1-A,” Burns says of the Mississippi prison.

A practice since 1998

The Vermont Department of Corrections has been sending a portion of its prisoners out of state due to lack of capacity since 1998, at times years ago sending nearly 700 inmates to those facilities.

A total of 13 different prisons around the country have housed Vermont inmates since that time, from as far away as Arizona to as close as bordering Massachusetts.

The different facilities have been run by various entities, from county and state governments to privately operated prisons.

The latest location is in the small town of Tutwiler, Miss., with a population of 1,111, according to latest figures and it’s about 70 miles south of Memphis, Tenn. The prison’s capacity is 2,764 inmates, and the facility has about 450 employees.

The Vermont inmates are particularly easy to spot on the prison campus, given their orange-and-white striped uniforms.

The facility sits along a flat landscape with a long stretch of fields lining both sides of the desolate Route 49 that runs through the town. The towers of lights above the prison can be seen at night for well more than a mile away.

Motorists approaching the facility are warned by signs along the road that only emergency stopping is permitted on the two-lane highway in the area of the prison.

Rows of fencing topped by barbed wire surround the sprawling prison complex, and the American flag hangs high on a pole just over the prison’s entrance. On two lower poles on the side of that banner is the state flag of Mississippi and one for CoreCivic.

A nearby water tower stands high above the prison, with lettering making passers-by aware they are in Tallahatchie County. The water tower is gray, seemingly in keeping with the non-description prison aesthetic.

Vermont inked a two-year deal with CoreCivic in September, with options to extend the agreement. The deal calls for the private prison company to make up to 350 beds available to Vermont inmates.

During the reporter’s recent tour, Vermont had 234 prisoners at the facility, including 14 that had just arrived a day earlier. The state of Vermont pays CoreCivic $71 a day per prisoner in the first year of the contract, increasing to $72 a day in the second year. The all-inclusive cost covers meals and medical care.

Vermont’s out-of-state inmates had been housed at the Camp Hill State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania. That contract ended after Vermont officials raised concerns over the treatment of prisoners at that state-run facility.

The complaints included difficulty communicating with people outside the prison, little time outside cells, and inadequate medical treatment. In one case, a prisoner suffering from terminal lung cancer was not provided with palliative care. Over a roughly yearlong period, three inmates died there.

VtDigger has been pushing for a tour of the Mississippi facility since the fall when Vermont signed a contract with the company in September to send its out-of-state prisoners there.

“As we work to get the new Vermont inmates onboard, we will not be able to accommodate a tour request at this time,” Rodney King, a CoreCivic spokesperson, wrote in an email then.

“In order to make the transition process as smooth as possible, it is important that we allow a reasonable settling-in period,” he added. “When facility officials and our partners believe that period has been fulfilled, we will gladly reconsider a request for a tour.”

This month, CoreCivic officials agreed to provide that tour, though with several restrictions.

“This is a ‘pen and pad’ tour,” King wrote in agreeing to allow a tour of the prison. “Cameras and recording devices are not permitted in the facility.”

Also, King said in preparation for the tour, talking to inmates would not be permitted.

With less than a week’s notification, and unable to secure a spot on any inmate’s visiting list, the state Department of Corrections agreed to ask prisoners there if any were willing to talk to a reporter about their experiences at the out-of-state facility.

That list included about 10 names, and VtDigger was allowed to select any two to interview for about 20 minutes each. The interviews took place in one of the prison’s chapels, where two correctional staff remained in the back of the room, citing security reasons for their presence.

Burns and Russell, in separate interviews, told similar stories of their dislike for the Pennsylvania facility they came from, and of the better conditions they have found so far in Mississippi.

Their reviews are in step with what prisoner advocates told VtDigger late last year about their take on the adjustment of prisoners from Pennsylvania to Mississippi.

Both Russell and Burns did say while better than Pennsylvania, the conditions in Mississippi are still not ideal.

They recognize the hardship being so far away from home has placed on prisoners’ families. So far, neither man has had family visit.

It can be a costly endeavor to travel the 1,366 miles from Burlington to Tutwiler, where the prison is located.

A recent trip by VtDigger, including a flight from Burlington to Memphis, Tenn., the closest airport, as well as the cost for a rental car and a two-night hotel stay, topped $1,000.

Burns, 35, from Burlington, is serving a 10-year sentence for a variety of offenses, including aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. His minimum release date is in December 2021. He says he talks to his parents on the phone often.

Burns said his mother lives in Vermont and his father lives in northern Tennessee, about 5½ hours away from the Mississippi facility. Neither has paid a visit yet, though he expected his father to come to see him soon.

He added that even if he were serving his time in a Vermont facility, he doubted the situation would be much different, since both his parents are both so busy with work and other commitments.

“I’m here because of what I did,” he said. “I’ve got to pay for crimes.”

Burns said drugs of all types are available behind the bars in Mississippi, though not as readily available as in the prisons they’ve been in back in Vermont.

“It’s a prison,” Russell added. “There’s always going to be that.”

Burns said he stays away from drugs in jail, but did say he does use another item of contraband on occasion. “I still smoke cigarettes every now and then,” he said.

Russell, 42, who hails from New York City, said if given his preference, he’d rather serve his time back in New York state to be closer to his family, which includes two teenage daughters.

He said even if he were serving time in Vermont, it’s unlikely he would get visits any more than he now does from family members because of the travel time involved.

Russell said his family hasn’t visited him in Mississippi, but expects they will. “They haven’t yet, but they will be here,” he said.

He’s serving a 12-year sentence for offenses also including aggravated assault with a weapon. Russell’s earliest release date is in December 2020.

Asked how the adjustment has been the Mississippi facility, Russell replied, “Everything is alright, a few bumps and bruises early on, but everything is OK.”

He then added, “It’s less stressful for sure going out of state.”

Debra Johnson, who oversees housing unit M, said she didn’t see any difference between the Vermont inmates and other prisoners at the facility.

She said Vermont prisoners were a little taken aback when they were assigned cellmates rather than getting to choose for themselves who they would be sharing a cell with.

A look inside

Leading the tour is Martin Frink, the prison’s warden for roughly the past three years. His office is located at the main entrance of the facility, which opened in April 2000. The facility housed about 350 prisoners when it opened. Since that time, the prison has expanded.

The facility does not house inmates from Mississippi. Instead a breakdown, provided the company, shows:

■ U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement / U. S. Marshals Service, 1,350 inmates.

■ Wyoming Department of Corrections, 90 inmates.

■ Vermont Department of Corrections, 250 inmates.

■ South Carolina Department of Corrections, 48 inmates.

■ U.S. Virgin Islands, 60 inmates.

The Vermont housing unit, “M,” is located a few hundred yards from the main entrance of the facility. The Vermont unit is broken up into three separate living sections, MA, MB and MC. Each of the two-tiered living sections house about 120 inmates, two to a cell.

Only living unit MA and MB are in use now, with MC sitting empty. That vacant section is available in case Vermont sends to the prison as many as the 350 inmates allowed under the contract.

In each living unit, many metal tables and chairs, permanently attached to the floor, fill the large open common area. The roughly 120 inmates in each of the two living sections spend a great deal of their time outside their cells in the common area.

Some play cards, others watch TVs mounted about 10 feet off the ground. Each inmate is allowed a flat-screen television in his cell, with a package that includes the major networks, as well as some sports and news channels.

Each of the two living areas housing Vermont inmates are separated from each other, so a prisoner in one cannot communicate with a prisoner in another. One guard, armed only with chemical agents, sits at a desk overseeing the large open room in each unit.

The housing units are air-conditioned with the temperature kept at around 72 degrees. There’s no smoking allowed. The cells, shared by no more than two inmates, include one toilet and bunk beds. Each bunk has a mattress and pillow, both encased in dark green vinyl-like coverings.

Showers are located on the far end of each living section, with curtains separating each of them.

Among the items each Vermont inmate receives upon arrival at the facility:

■ one mattress

■ two blankets

■ one pillow

■ two towels

■ two washcloths

■ two laundry bags

■ three shirts

■ three pants

■ one pair of Croc-like shoes

■ one pair of shower shoes

■ one jacket

■ three pair of socks

■ three T-shirts

Frink says inmates don’t leave the housing unit to eat their meals. Instead, the meals are brought to them three times a day, starting around 5:30 a.m. with breakfast.

While some inmates have complained of cold food and small portion sizes, Frink said such complaints aren’t widespread. He added if the food is not warm enough, each of the living sections has a microwave available to warm something up.

Inmates help prepare food and may also find jobs doing janitorial work or doing the laundry.

Inmates found with contraband, or facing disciplinary actions for other reasons, such as fighting, are sanctioned as they would be in a Vermont facility, which can include being locked down in a segregated unit up to 23 hours a day.

According to the state’s contract with CoreCivic, Vermont inmates in Mississippi are treated in accordance with Vermont Department of Corrections rules and policies, and CoreCivic employees have received training inmates’ due process rights.

That’s a difference from when the prisoners were in Pennsylvania and were treated under that state’s rules and policies for inmates.

Frink, the warden, said the prison uses random cell searches to cut down on contraband, as well as a security camera system that monitors both the inside and outside of the facility.

The prison provides education class for inmates to obtain their GED as well as vocational programs, such as carpentry classes. Substance abuse programs are also provided.

The prison provides medical services and a dentist, with acute emergency care provided at one of two nearby hospitals, Frink said.

An outdoor recreation yard is located just outside the M block. The concrete rec yard is partially covered from the rain and features basketball courts and a few pieces of weight-lifting equipment, though no free weights could be seen.

One inmate spotted walking out on the yard picked up a basketball, and when he tried to bounce it on the ground it was flat and didn’t bounce back up. Several inmates could be seen walking laps inside the perimeter of the rec yard.

Walking inside the prison, the walls are mostly gray and the floor cement. Walking through each section requires passing through locked sliding barriers that need to be opened after pressing a button requesting access.

Some inspirational posters and fliers are on the walls, encouraging inmates to pursue education and work to better their lives. There’s also poster that reads, “CoreCivic Pride.”

Frink said Vermont inmates do not regularly mix with the inmates from other states or jurisdictions, except during programming, such as classes, or while doing jobs or attending religious services.

The facility offers a range of religious services, from Christianity, Judaism, Islam as well as others, including Satanism.

“We can’t discriminate,” King, the CoreCivic spokesperson, said of the variety of religious services offered.

The prison also has a room where inmates get haircuts, complete with an image of a barber pole outside.

Emily Tredeau, a staff attorney at the Vermont Defender General’s office, visited the prison last month for a tour and also to talk to prisoners about how they are adjusting to the facility in Mississippi.

She said for the most part the Vermont inmates seemed to be adjusting with few issues.

“To some extent,” she said, “I think they still might be on their honeymoon period because Pennsylvania was such a difficult experience.”

She said among the concerns that were raised included limited time for recreation of only about 90 minutes each day, as well as difficulty getting prescriptions refilled in a timely manner. For example, she said, if an inmate had a 30-day supply, getting a refill at the end of that period was not always happening, prisoners told her.

“We raised it with individual staff who were there, and they expressed concern, but they also disputed the frequency with which that happened,” Tredeau said.

“I understand people of both sides have different perspectives,” she added, “but I don’t think I would have heard it from inmate after inmate after inmate if it wasn’t real.”

Amy Dixon, the prison’s health services administrator, said during the recent tour that there were issues with the processing of prescription requests when Vermont inmates first arrived, particularly when there was a change in an inmate’s medication. However, she said, she believed those situations have since improved.

Medical care at the facility has been an issue in the past.

After Tyrone Madden, 30, a California prisoner held at the Mississippi facility, died there in 2015, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation conducted an audit.

According to that audit, medical care at the facility was “undesirable” and “not meeting the target performance benchmark.”

Since that time, according to King, CoreCivic’s spokesperson, the prison worked with California officials to develop a “corrective action plan.” That led to a series of administrative, personnel and procedural changes, and put the facility “in compliance” with that state’s standards, King said.

California eventually dropped its contract with CoreCivic last summer. The Vermont prisoners are now in the cell block, M, that had been housing California prisoners. Tredeau also said that another concern during her visit was Vermont inmates at the Mississippi facility did not have access to Vermont legal materials, such as state statutes and case law information.

Frink said that information is being set up and should be available shortly.

Burns, one of the inmates VtDigger spoke with about the Mississippi facility, said he’s focusing on doing his time, staying out of trouble, and getting out.

“If I were in Vermont it would be a little more stressful,” he added. “They micromanage a little more there.”

Still, there are plenty of rules at the Mississippi facility for inmates to follow, too.

At 10:30 p.m. it’s lights out.

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