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Part 1 of 3: Looking at Life in Prison as Vt. Inmates ‘Warehoused’ in Michigan

  • A construction worker walks through one of the cell block areas of the correctional facility in Baldwin, Mich., before its opening in 1999. (AP Photo/Dale Atkins)

  • Inmates walk through the yard in October 2008 at Marble Valley Correctional Facility in Rutland, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

  • Windsor County state's attorney Michael Kainen at a meeting in White River Junction, Vt., on March 29, 2014. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Eric Daley, left, answers questions from his attorney, Matt Harnett, from the stand at his sentencing hearing in White River Junction, Vt., on September 15, 2004. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 8/30/2016 4:29:36 PM
Modified: 8/30/2016 5:29:11 PM

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the Sunday Valley News on Dec. 27, 2015. It’s the first part in a three-part series.

Click here to read parts two and three.

Baldwin, Mich. — A half mile down West 32nd Street, where the paved road turns to sandy dirt and muddy tire ruts, 241 Vermont prison inmates do their time in exile, banished by the state Department of Corrections to this 1,740-bed maximum-security prison in northern Michigan.

Their rap sheets, while not always lengthy, often speak to horrific events from Vermont’s past.

Murderers. Child molesters. Kidnappers.

Many of the state’s most serious offenders are incarcerated at North Lake Correctional Facility, a state-of-the-art prison carved out of Michigan’s pine forest in the state’s poorest county.

With more than 425,000 square feet of floor space under its roof, the concrete fortress could accommodate seven football fields.

A guard tower offers a bird’s-eye view of the prison’s 18-acre footprint and surrounding scrubland. But it sits dark. A 21-foot-high metal fence topped with shiny razor wire that encases the prison’s perimeter is deterrent enough.

North Lake is owned and operated by GEO Group, a publicly traded company with headquarters in Boca Raton, Fla., that boasts 106 correctional facilities worldwide.

Plagued by overcrowding at home, Vermont began shipping male inmates to out-of-state prisons in the late 1990s. Even with the 2003 opening of a new 370-bed prison in Springfield, Vermont didn’t have room enough for all the people that it wanted behind bars. (The state’s female prison population, currently housed in South Burlington, also has grown in the last decade and now is up to 150.)

Instead of adding to its inventory of seven prisons, Vermont over the years has sent male prisoners to Arizona, Kentucky, Virginia or wherever else it could find a deal.

“I was on the first bus out of the state in July 1998,” said Adam Corliss, of Springfield, Vt.

This summer, Corliss, who is serving a 50-year to life sentence for first-degree murder, was among 297 inmates moved to Michigan from Kentucky and Arizona. In recent months, 50 or so inmates have returned to Vermont, reducing North Lake’s population to 241.

Earlier this month, I spent five days in Baldwin, Mich., a hardscrabble town with a population around 1,200, best known for its fishing streams and lakes and an annual “Blessing of the Bikes” festival that draws thousands of motorcyclists every May.

I interviewed 13 Vermont inmates — roughly 5 percent — of those at North Lake. Allowed to set up shop at a corner table in the prison’s spacious visitation room, I talked one-on-one with inmates who had agreed ahead of time to meet. Throughout the interviews, an older GEO guard was stationed at the other end of the room.

Corliss, 41, told me that his family hadn’t visited since he left Vermont more than 17 years ago. He calls his mother, who worked in Springfield’s machine tool shops when he was young, every couple of weeks and writes to her regularly. “I could call my mom today and say I needed to see her, and she’d be on a plane this weekend,” he said.

“I would,” 72-year-old Betsy Corliss said when I recounted my conversation with her son. “I have a lot of medical issues, so it would be very hard, but if Adam asked, I’d find a way.”

But he won’t ask.

“I’ve put her through enough,” he said.

But would Corliss feel the same way if he were incarcerated in Vermont instead of 850 miles away?

“You’d be hard pressed to find anyone here who wants to go back to Vermont,” he said.

That surprised me. I had assumed that inmates would prefer to be housed in Vermont to be closer to their families. But despite the state’s progressive reputation, nearly every inmate I talked with shared Corliss’ sentiment: Vermont is not a place where you want to serve a lengthy prison sentence.

Why’s that?

For starters, the state seems to go out of its way to discourage visits between male inmates and their families. (At Vermont’s only prison for women in South Burlington, visitation rules are less strict.)

Getting DOC approval to be placed on an inmate’s visitation list can take weeks. Visits are limited to a set time once a week, usually on Saturday or Sunday, for two hours.

Families can drive hundreds of miles with no guarantee that they’ll actually get inside. If the visitation room fills up before they arrive, they can be out of luck, not to mention time and gas money.

Then there are the visits themselves.

“Something’s wrong when you can’t even hug your mom,” said Eric Daley, one of the inmates I talked with in Michigan. “Vermont does everything it can to take the humanity out of you.”

At its in-state prisons for men, Vermont DOC has a strict “no-contact” rule governing visits. Parents are prohibited from shaking their son’s hand; wives aren’t allowed a peck on the cheek. Hugs are a definite no-no. (An exception is made for children ages 11 and under.)

“I understand that to family members this policy seems strict, but it is done in an effort to maintain safety and reduce contraband while allowing minor children the opportunity to have contact with their incarcerated parent,” DOC Commissioner Lisa Menard said.

The no-contact policy extends beyond visits to actual prisons. Last year, inmate Richard Gagnon, who is serving 17 years at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield for second-degree murder, was undergoing chemotherapy treatments at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. “I couldn’t even be in the room with him,” said his wife, Meg McCarthy, of Marlboro, Vt.

When Gagnon, 63, came down with pneumonia during his treatments for neck cancer, he was admitted to Springfield Hospital. “He was lying in bed, drifting in and out of sleep, with a guard in the room, and I was not allowed to even hold my husband’s hand,” McCarthy said.

Even with the no-contact rule at the state’s male prisons, visitors must pass through a metal detector. A guard checks their shoes and socks for contraband.

In other New England states, visitors and families go through similar procedures. But other states are more welcoming, and arguably less paranoid about potential security breaches. In New Hampshire, inmates are allowed two three-hour visits a week, during which they can play board games and share food from vending machines.

North Lake permits brief physical contact during visits, which run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. “But if someone’s mother shows up on a Monday, we’re not going to turn her away,” North Lake Warden Ralph Cherry said.

Not that there’s a line to get inside: Only one or two visitors show up a week, Cherry said.

North Lake’s visitation room also is equipped with vending machines and board games, such as checkers and Scrabble. Vermont’s male prisons lack both.

At North Lake, most inmates, dressed in tan or orange jumpsuits, took up my offer of a soft drink and a snack that they had to finish before leaving the room. I also was allowed to shake hands with each inmate at the beginning and end of our 30-minute talks.

A handshake and a Snickers bar doesn’t sound like much. But for prisoners, the small things in life can be their only connection to the outside world.

A Warehouse Approach

Nine out of 10 Vermont inmates eventually will be released. For the inmates sent in June to Michigan, the chances are less. Still, roughly 75 percent have sentences that allow for the possibility of them getting out at some point.

Since the vast majority of inmates nationally will be released, criminal justice reformers argue it’s in society’s best interest for inmates to get the help they need while behind bars. But all too often they don’t receive it in Vermont or Michigan.

Attempting to provide inmates nearly 1,000 miles away with rehabilitative services is “not ideal, but things are not ideal in Vermont, either,” said Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio, the state official whose office serves as the DOC watchdog.

Like many offenders in Vermont and elsewhere, Shayne Fleming-Pancione committed crimes that were tied to drug addiction.

By his early 20s, he had dropped out of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and was using heroin. He didn’t think he could get hooked. “I was ignorant,” he said.

Before long, Fleming-Pancione had developed a $100-a-day habit while earning $600 a week doing building maintenance. “It just wasn’t sustainable,” he said. “After I paid a few bills and bought dope, I had no money for the next six days.”

Figuring he was too notorious in western Massachusetts (he’d already served time in his home state for drug and robbery convictions), Fleming-Pancione drove to Brattleboro, Vt. Armed with only a note, he robbed a bank.

“Nobody is ever happy with a lengthy sentence, but I was comfortable with it,” he said, referring to the eight years the judge gave him. “I committed a crime, and got a reasonable amount of time for it.”

Fleming-Pancione, 39, is scheduled for release in December 2019. Halfway through his sentence, he hasn’t received any substance abuse treatment. If he needs help, he expects it will have to wait until he’s back on the street.

“Right now, I don’t have a desire to use,” he said. “It’s not a daily battle like it once was. I’d love to say that I’ll never use again, but I have to be realistic. It’s a tough disease.”

Whether it be for substance abuse or sex offenses, Vermont’s correctional philosophy is that it doesn’t do much good to provide inmates with treatment or prepare them for the outside world until they near the end of their sentences.

“A targeted intervention closer to the time of release is more effective,” said Menard, who in September moved up through DOC’s ranks to the Commissioner’s Office.

Since the offenders in Michigan are serving lengthy sentences, they have access to even fewer services than prisoners in Vermont.

Corliss, the convicted murderer, told me that shortly after he was sentenced 20 years ago, he asked about getting into anger management programming. “I was told that I wouldn’t be eligible for another three decades,” he said. “Unfortunately, Vermont has never been equipped to deal with long-term prisoners.”

Ronald Gagne, 49, is six years into a 16-year sentence for aggravated assault and unlawful restraint. “Vermont doesn’t want to help you change,” he said. “Vermont wants to warehouse you.”

Inmates refer to being in Michigan as dead time. “People are sleeping all day here, because they don’t have anything to do,” Fleming-Pancione said. “It’s like a retirement home.”

Between Vermont and Massachusetts, Fleming-Pancione has spent 14 years — more than one-third of his life — imprisoned. “I’ve seen guys who were in the hole (solitary confinement) for 23 hours a day, and the next thing you know, their sentence is up and they’re being put out on the street.

“Do you want someone who has been institutionalized for years and has had no social interaction with the outside world in line with you at the supermarket or the ATM, and sitting in restaurants at the table next to you?”

‘I’m Not the Same Person’

On the night of Feb. 4, 1994, Jennifer Little was stabbed nine times while sitting in the front seat of her car in Springfield. She died in a nearby snowbank.

In the car with Little that night was 19-year-old Adam Corliss. The two friends had plans to buy marijuana from a local drug dealer, but fought over money.

“Later that same evening, (Corliss) purchased marijuana with bills soaked in the victim’s blood,” court documents said.

Corliss received a sentence of 50 years to life. “I came from a good family, but I was a young, stupid kid,” he said. “I deserve to be where I am.”

Under the sentencing laws that were in place in the mid-1990s, Corliss’ minimum sentence could be reduced to 32 years from 50 years with good behavior, schooling and work. That makes him eligible for parole in June 2027. He’ll be 53.

“Just because I have a minimum date doesn’t mean I’m getting out then,” he said. “I’m not kidding myself. I committed a heinous crime. There are some people who shouldn’t be let back on the streets. Maybe the public thinks I’m one of them.”

Which gets to the core of the criminal justice reform movement that has gained traction across the country: How much punishment is enough? Can people change for the better in prison?

Corliss thinks he has.

Before being moved to Michigan, he was among the Vermont inmates doing their time in Kentucky. It was there that he became involved in a program that had inmates training dogs that had been abandoned or mistreated. His job was to get the dogs to where they trusted people again and could safely be put up for adoption. (The dog training program isn’t available at North Lake or in Vermont prisons.)

For years, Corliss had different dogs, from a Maltipoo to a mastiff, living in his cell. After adopting dogs that Corliss successfully had rehabilitated, families sent him thank-you letters and photos of their new pets.

“It was incredibly rewarding,” Corliss said. “I want to get out and prove to people that I’m not the same person that I was as a kid.

“But I understand how the public is. We live in a very unforgiving society.”

Plenty of Time and Room

The U.S. has more people in prison than any other country. Since 1980, America’s prison population has more than quadrupled to 2.2 million. More than half of U.S. inmates — roughly 1.3 million — are held in state prisons.

Vermont currently has 1,400 male prisoners housed in its six in-state correctional facilities to go along with its 241 in Michigan. The state also has 150 women behind bars.

Combined, that’s triple the state’s prison population 30 years ago. But it’s considerably fewer than the 2,250 inmates that Vermont was imprisoning in 2010. At one point in the last decade, Vermont’s out-of-state prison population swelled to more than 500.

With fewer inmates in-state and less reliance on out-of-state prisons, it appears Vermont is taking criminal justice reform seriously.

But is the state doing enough?

“Many times, jail is absolutely appropriate,” Windsor County State’s Attorney Michael Kainen said. “Also, there are times when it might not be.

“We are incarcerating more people than we need to. It’s costly, and there are better ways we can spend our money than keeping people in jail.”

Kainen, a state legislator and criminal defense attorney before becoming the county’s top prosecutor in 2013, made his comments at a recent community forum in Hartford organized by Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell.

The forum was one of three that Sorrell held in the state earlier this month to get residents’ input on “whether Vermont should reduce its reliance on incarceration as a response to criminal conduct.”

The cost to taxpayers is one point in reformers’ favor. It currently costs Vermont about $62,000 annually to keep an inmate behind bars, according to DOC statistics. The cost drops significantly for out-of-state prisoners. Vermont is spending $22,600 a year to incarcerate an inmate at North Lake.

Why such a big difference?

North Lake, as inmates point out, offers little in terms of educational and vocational opportunities. Treatment programs that focus on substance abuse and mental illnesses virtually are nonexistent.

The blame doesn’t entirely rest with GEO Group, the private prison company behind North Lake. As with a lot of commodities, you get what you pay for.

GEO has the capability to provide more services, such as college courses, but Vermont has to be willing to foot the bill.

“GEO’s not the problem,” said Kaseen Smith, who is serving 15 to 30 years for two counts of aggravated domestic assault against his girlfriend in 2007. “The bigger issue is Vermont. The state gives us no tools for change.”

Only about half of the inmates at North Lake have jobs. Under its contract with GEO, Vermont is responsible for paying the $1 to $3 a day that inmates can earn by mopping floors, cleaning tables in the cafeteria and working in the law library.

If Vermont wants more inmates to work, it only needs to come up with the money. “I would like to see more jobs,” said Menard, the DOC commissioner. “We would much rather see inmates busy. We are also mindful of taxpayer funds and do not create unnecessary jobs.”

So the state does the bare minimum. The result? Many prisoners spend the bulk of their waking hours watching TV and playing video games.

Which brings me back to why many inmates prefer doing time in Michigan than Vermont.

The DOC doesn’t allow video consoles at its in-state prisons. It recently began allowing inmates in Vermont to buy tablets preloaded with games.

But at North Lake, inmates can have Xbox or PlayStation consoles and games, providing they, or their families, buy them. Inmates also can purchase TVs for their cells. And, like prisoners in Vermont, they can send limited emails, which cost 40 cents each.

Since Vermont’s 241 inmates are the only ones at the 1,750-bed North Lake prison, there’s plenty of room. (I’ll get into the reasons for North Lake being virtually empty later in this three-part series.)

Currently, most Vermont inmates have their own cells. In Vermont, there can be up to four men per cell.

For people living on the outside, it might sound trivial. But for prisoners who have spent years behind bars and won’t be getting out anytime soon, having a cell to themselves with a video game console, TV, toilet and sink is enough to prefer Michigan over Vermont.

Smith, the father of nine children between the ages of 7 and 19, might be the exception.

He’s been imprisoned out of state since 2010, and he hasn’t seen his children, most of whom now live in New York, in five years. “It’s hard, but I have to deal with it,” he said. “I’d prefer to be near my kids.”

At North Lake, Smith, 40, started a poetry group that meets weekly and also helped organize an HIV awareness class. When we talked, he’d just received approval from the prison staff to put together a holiday talent show.

Some inmates would “rather sit in their cells and play Xbox all day,” he said. “I don’t have time for that.”

‘I Got to Keep Active’

Richard Davis, 68, is one of North Lake’s oldest inmates. He’s a diabetic who has lost 100 pounds in the last couple of years. Davis, who stands 5 feet 6 inches, is down to 142 pounds.

Like many inmates I talked with, Davis didn’t graduate from high school. “I can do numbers, but I can’t read much,” he said. (A large number of inmates earn their high school diploma or GED while in prison.)

Davis, who was convicted of kidnapping and simple assault, was moved out of state in 1999 — long enough ago for him to now refer to prison as his “home.”

He earns $3 a day in North Lake’s kitchen, peeling vegetables and cutting meat. “I work seven days a week when they let me,” he said. “On Sundays, I come home from work, shower and shave, and go to church in the afternoon.

“I like working. What little mind I got, I got to keep active. I got an easy job. I don’t have to do a lot of lifting.”

A Rocky Start

Upon their June arrival at North Lake, 10 or so inmates immediately were put in the “hole.” One inmate told me he was in solitary confinement for nine days, supposedly for bad behavior while in Kentucky.

The relationship between Vermont inmates and North Lake’s guards got off to a rocky start. Cherry, the prison warden, didn’t dispute inmates’ claims that guards went out of their way early on to show who was in charge.

From a security standpoint, “it’s easier to loosen up than tighten up,” Cherry said.

As one guard told me, the majority of Vermont inmates aren’t difficult to deal with, but there are “a few gruesome characters.”

While there have been a few fights during the first six months, prisoners told me they’ve seen much worse in other prisons.

“A lot of guys act tough, but they’re not,” Elliot Russell said.

Russell, 39, is serving a 13- to 15-year sentence for aggravated assault with a weapon, stemming from a knife fight outside a Bennington, Vt., bar. He’s also served time in New York for robbery and assault.

Russell prefers doing his time in Michigan rather than Vermont, one reason being the guards.

“If you treat them with a certain amount of respect, they’ll give it back to you,” he said.

Robert White, 53, is serving life without parole for killing a hotel desk clerk in Rutland County.

He’s been imprisoned since 1998.

After receiving his sentence for second-degree murder, White said he insisted his wife file for divorce. They haven’t talked in 15 years. It’s been almost that long since he’s had contact with his two children. They’ve reached out to him, but he’s asked them not to visit or write. (Inmates can’t receive calls; they can only make them.)

With no chance of ever rejoining the outside world, White does what he must do to live inside this one, made of heavy metal doors and wire fences.

“It’s not that I don’t love my family, or don’t care,” he said. “I’ve been in almost 18 years. It’s taken me a long time to get in the right mind set.”

White’s first out-of-state prison was Greensville Correctional Center, a state correctional facility in rural Virginia. He worked in the prison’s carpentry shop, building furniture for state offices and public college dorms.

“Nothing exercises the mind like building something,” he said. “You take pride in what you’re doing.”

At North Lake, he serves meals and cleans cafeteria tables for $2 a day. “The menial jobs you have here, you can’t take a lot of satisfaction in them,” he said.

North Lake has its advantages — one man to a cell, and not having to share a TV come immediately to mind. “I’m a channel surfer,” White said.

While other inmates, particularly snitches and sex offenders, can have a rough time, White said, he’s left alone. “With my sentence, whether it’s earned or not, comes a certain amount of respect.”

In prison, weekdays, weekends and holidays meld together. With no window in his 6-by-9 cell, even day and night are hard to differentiate.

“You lose a sense of reality,” White said. “You can’t judge the weather or time of day.”

Inmates are allowed out into the exercise yard twice a day. White hasn’t ventured outside in three months. “There’s nothing out there for me any more,” he said. “When I was on the street, I liked to go hunting, fishing and panning for gold.

“I’m OK until I look past those fences. I’m looking at something that I’m never going to see again.”

Through the visitation room’s narrow windows, I watched a lone jogger take lap after lap around the exercise yard.

A steady, cold drizzle fell into puddles on the already rain-soaked ground. The inmate, who was in his late 40s, wore gray shorts, a sweatshirt and a knit cap. His sneakers seemed more suited for basketball than distance running.

The inmate stayed close to the fence, never breaking stride. “He’s out there every day, twice a day,” a guard said. “He probably runs 16 miles a day.”

In the shadow of an impenetrable fence topped with razor wire, a prisoner measures his time in something other than years.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

Correction

With more than 425,000 square feet of floor space, the North Lake Correctional Facility in Michigan could accommodate about seven football fields. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described how many fields might fit in the prison.




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