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Jim Kenyon: Vermont’s Corrections system needs fixing

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Saturday, June 29, 2019

For 20 years, Vermont has gotten away with treating a chunk of its prison population like cattle. With Vermont’s own prisons maxed out, hundreds of offenders are herded from state to state, exported to wherever the Department of Corrections can find the best deal.

Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and now Mississippi are among more than a dozen states that have warehoused some of Vermont’s most serious felons at one time or another.

Over the years, legislators and a string of governors, starting with Howard Dean, have exiled inmates — as many as 670 in 2010 — under the guise of saving taxpayers money. While it is cheaper in the short term, nobody really knows the lasting effects on inmates who can go years without seeing their families or receiving meaningful rehabilitation to prepare them for the outside world.

It can’t be good.

Last week, VtDigger reported on the state prison population’s recent growth spurt. Vermont now has more than 1,750 people behind bars, fueled in part by a 14% increase between January and June in offenders’ average length of incarceration.

As of last week, Corrections had 87 more men than it had prison beds. As a result, some inmates were sleeping on plastic cots in overcrowded cells.

The alternative is to move more inmates 1,400 miles to the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in northwest Mississippi. The 2,600-bed prison is run by CoreCivic, the largest U.S. private prison company.

Vermont currently has 276 inmates in Mississippi — roughly 60 more than it had last fall when the state cut its deal with CoreCivic.

While the Department of Corrections controls which inmates are sent to other states, it’s really just the gatekeeper. Vermont’s elected officials have the ultimate say in how the state chooses to handle people who run afoul of the law.

But Gov. Phil Scott and legislators are well aware that they won’t have to pay a political price for sending more and more inmates to Mississippi, or anywhere else for that matter. The treatment — mistreatment, really — of prison inmates is of little public concern.

“This is not a constituency that has any power,” said ex-state Sen. Will Hunter, who has become a strong prisoner advocate and a landlord who provides recently released inmates with affordable housing in Springfield, Vt. “The Legislature doesn’t care about prisoners.”

Lawmakers’ indifference would be easier to understand if Vermont was, say, Mississippi. But Vermont is a “left-winger’s paradise,” as Hunter, who served in the Legislature as a Democrat in the 1970s and ’80s, put it.

So why do progressive-thinking Vermonters who claim to have a social conscience look away when it comes to the use of out-of-state prisons?

Not even the deaths in 2017 of three Vermont inmates who had spent time at Pennsylvania’s Camp Hill prison, where medical care was an issue, were enough to spur a prison reform movement in Montpelier.

All that changed was inmates’ ZIP code.

What’s the answer?

The state could start by reopening its work camp in Windsor. Putting offenders to work mowing lawns in cemeteries and painting libraries is more productive than having them spend their days watching TV, which often is the case in out-of-state prisons.

Instead of focusing on punishment, the emphasis could be on vocational training and college-level courses to better prepare offenders when they return to the streets. Nine out of 10 will get out someday.

It might not be for another 10 years or so, but Eric Daley will be one of them.

The 39-year-old Daley has been incarcerated since he was 23. In June 2003, Daley led Vermont State Police on a high-speed chase on Interstate 91 in Thetford and Norwich that resulted in the death of state trooper Michael Johnson, of Bradford, Vt. Daley, who pleaded guilty, was sentenced to 28 to 33 years.

No doubt he deserved a lengthy prison sentence, but as I’ve argued for a while, enough is enough.

In Daley’s 16 years behind bars, the Department of Correcrions has moved him to four different states. In March 2018, the department, at the request of Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill, brought Daley back to Vermont.

Daley had filed for “post-conviction relief,” arguing that his court-appointed lawyers in 2003 were constitutionally ineffective.

Daley’s new attorney, Robert Appel, the state’s former defender general, wanted him back in the state for depositions and court hearings. Cahill obliged. (The judge’s decision on Daley’s request for a new sentencing hearing is still pending.)

At the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Daley got a night job in the prison laundry that paid $1.25 per shift. He played guitar at church services and met weekly with a pastor to talk about family issues and whatever else was on his mind. Daley’s dad, who lives in Springfield, also visited.

But a few months ago, Daley was moved to the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, Vt. Daley requested a transfer back to Springfield. He got his wish — or so he thought. Two weeks ago, he was placed in shackles and put on a bus to Mississippi.

John Nunnikhoven, the prison minister who befriended Daley, said the sudden move to Mississippi has “severed any relationships he might have had.”

“By and large, Vermont is about punishment. There’s no pressure on the Legislature to change a thing,” he said.

In his 16 years in prison, “it’s never been this bad,” Daley told me. “Here, I’ve got nothing.”

On the day we talked, Daley had just come back from lunch. The only thing on his plate that he could stomach was a glob of peanut butter. “The food is worse here than anywhere I’ve been,” he said.

I’ve been writing about Vermont’s out-of-state prisoners long enough to know what they eat doesn’t matter to a lot of people.

They’re just cattle.

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