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Jim Kenyon: Sad State of Prisons

Published: 8/31/2016 12:04:51 AM
Modified: 8/31/2016 1:03:17 PM

The U.S. Justice Department announced earlier this month that it intends to phase out the use of private prisons. Will Vermont follow suit?

Currently, the state has 251 inmates at a private prison in northern Michigan, which I wrote about after visiting in December.

The timing of the feds’ sudden about-face at least gives Vermont’s gubernatorial candidates more to debate than wind turbines.

Still, it’s a red herring.

The Vermont correctional system’s ills run deeper than the warehousing of 16 percent of its male inmates in a Midwest outpost owned and operated by GEO Group, a Florida-based, publicly traded company with 106 correctional facilities worldwide.

Vermonters should ask themselves why their state is among only 11 that spends more on corrections than higher education, as CNN reported last year.

For starters, Vermont has more offenders behind bars than it needs. Then again, that’s a nationwide problem. Since 1980, American’s prison population has more than quadrupled to 2.2 million.

Gov. Peter Shumlin’s administration is quick to point out that Vermont’s prison population has dropped significantly from a high-water mark of 2,250 in 2010 to the current 1,550.

That’s progress, but building a criminal justice system that emphasizes rehabilitation, job training and substance abuse treatment over punishment still has a ways to go in Vermont. (More than 40 percent of Vermont inmates with sentences of more than a year re-offend within three years of their release.)

The state also needs to stop using prisons as economic engines. As long as prisons are viewed as a source of decent-paying jobs in hardscrabble towns such as Springfield and Newport, there’s not a big incentive to further reduce the inmate population.

I used to consider myself a diehard supporter of the it’s-time-to-bring-our-inmates-home movement, which a well-meaning nonprofit group called Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform has spearheaded. Then I sat down one-on-one with a dozen or so Vermont inmates at North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Mich.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone here who wants to go back to Vermont,” said Adam Corliss, who is serving a 50-years-to-life sentence for first-degree murder and has been incarcerated out of state since 1998.

North Lake, which was built in the late 1990s, is a state-of-the-art facility that’s in better condition than just about any, if not all, of Vermont’s six male prisons.

At North Lake, Vermont inmates live in single cells with their own toilets and sinks. They can also have TVs and video game systems, if they or their families pay for them.

Being 850 miles away no doubt makes it hard for inmates’ families to visit. But it’s no picnic for the families of Vermont inmates, either. The Department of Corrections seems to go out of its way to discourage families and friends from staying in touch.

Visits are limited to once a week for two hours, usually on a Saturday or Sunday. In other states, including Michigan, offenders and visitors can play board games and share snacks from vending machines — small but important interactions that bring a sense of normalcy to the lives of inmates and their families for a couple of hours a week.

As I reported in December, Vermont is the only New England state that doesn’t allow contact visits. It means moms can’t give their imprisoned sons a hug; dads can’t offer a handshake.

Only children ages 11 and under can have contact. Everyone else must remain on the other side of the visitation room’s table.

“Vermont does everything it can to take the humanity out of you,” said inmate Eric Daley, of Springfield, Vt., when we talked at North Lake.

DOC officials maintain that the no-contact policy cuts down on prison contraband. But plenty of prisons in other states, including Michigan’s North Lake, seem to manage.

DOC isn’t the only responsible party here.

In the early 2000s, the Vermont Legislature got caught up in the truth-in-sentencing rage that swept the country. Kowtowing to victims’ advocacy groups, lawmakers eliminated so-called “good time” for the vast majority of new inmates. Today, inmates have little incentive to remain on their best behavior or participate in educational programs as a way of accelerating their release.

To make matters worse, the state also makes poor use of its work camp in Windsor. This week, only 15 of the 104 inmates at the former prison farm were being allowed out in the community to mow lawns, paint churches and clean fire stations.

The jobs not only give inmates a useful way to pass their time, they also reconnect them to the community. (Not to mention that town governments and nonprofit organizations get a source of cheap labor.)

But you don’t hear much about that on the campaign trail. Private prisons, on the other hand, are now among the “hottest issues” in this fall’s campaign for governor, according to the Associated Press.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sue Minter said she would “explore phasing out the use of private prisons altogether by bringing together community leaders to find more ways to continue reducing Vermont’s recidivism rate and the number of non-violent offenders incarcerated.”

Republican nominee Phil Scott said his administration would “conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis” before making a decision.

Fine, but let’s not expect too much if Vermont ends its nearly 20-year practice of shipping prisoners out of state. Real criminal justice reform begins at home.

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


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