Firm Seeks To Build Vt. Prison

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Montpelier — A private company that owns and manages prisons is looking to build a 925-bed facility proposed by the Scott administration.

CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corp. of America, which owns 61 facilities in the United States, is lobbying lawmakers and the Governor’s Office for a contract to build and lease the facility to the state, according to a statement from the company.

Corrections Corp. of America and the new company have been criticized for poor management of state and national prisons and have been the subject of several national exposes.

The Agency of Human Services announced a plan Monday to build a $150 million prison campus in northwestern Vermont as part of a report to the Legislature that comprehensively analyzes “pressing” mental health and inmate facility needs.

Human Services Secretary Al Gobeille, whose agency oversees corrections and mental health programs, said the report outlines a 10-year vision that attempts to look holistically at the needs of inmates and people with mental illness.

The proposal, which would feature eight separate facilities on a single campus, could be built on land the state owns as part of the Northwest State Correctional Facility, near St. Albans, Vt. The complex would be built in stages.

“We had to pick somewhere and run real numbers on it, and we chose Franklin County,” Gobeille told lawmakers on Tuesday. “This could be put somewhere else in the state, but what we hold dear is the idea of a campus.”

The Scott administration proposal would replace 175 beds at the women’s prison, Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, and 457 beds for out-of-state inmates, all of whom are male. It also would create an infirmary and 50 beds for sick and aging prisoners.

The plan includes 120 new beds for the U.S. Marshals, which would rent the space for immigration and border detainees. Fifty beds would be created for violent mentally ill offenders who are now being held at a temporary facility in Middlesex, Vt.

In addition, Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center would close, and 25 psychiatric beds would be made available for child offenders.

“This is a model for what we think it would cost and what a campus-like vision could be,” Gobeille said. Inmates from different populations shouldn’t be “sprinkled” around the state, he said, because then “you lose the benefit of having the facilities located together.”

The state’s prison system is estimated to cost about $3.3 billion over the next 20 years. Gobeille said the new prison campus could save about $100 million over two decades. Savings would come from economies of scale achieved through co-location of facilities, he said.

Questions remain about how the state could pay for construction of a new prison complex at a time when bonding capacity has been maxed out for state projects. Gobeille is proposing that the state contract out the design, construction and financing to a private entity, which then would lease the facilities to the state for 25 years. The state would make annual appropriations to pay for the use of the campus.

For more than a decade, the Vermont Department of Corrections has spent millions of dollars on out-of-state beds for hundreds of inmates because of a lack of bed capacity in Vermont. Advocates, meanwhile, have worked to bring inmates back home.

Last summer, the issue reached a tipping point when about 250 Vermont prisoners were moved to a Pennsylvania state-run facility near Harrisburg. Since then, inmates have complained about poor treatment and inadequate health services. In one instance, a man who was dying of lung cancer was not diagnosed until his case was found to be terminal. He was not provided palliative care at the end of his life, according to relatives, and was in agony in his final days.

An in-state facility would ensure that prisoners receive adequate health care, mental health treatment, and vocational and educational opportunities, according to Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia.

The report is meant to spur a debate in the Legislature about how to best serve children who need residential treatment, as well as juvenile delinquents, people who need long-term, secure mental health treatment, and older people with significant psychiatric needs.

The ambitious plan is part of a 10-year vision for corrections and mental health, Gobeille said. In the near term, he wants to move ahead as soon as possible with building a temporary 12-bed forensic unit at Northwest State; constructing a 16-bed facility to replace the Middlesex facility; building psychiatric beds at the University of Vermont Medical Center; and securing Medicaid funding for Colchester, Vt.-based Woodside, which the state is trying to convert from a juvenile jail to a residential psychiatric treatment facility.

Shifting to smaller 16-bed psychiatric facilities that are designated as “institutions of mental disease” could enable the state to obtain more funding support from Medicaid. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will reduce funding for larger facilities in 2021 and will eliminate funding altogether after 2026. That could gut support for the newly built Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin, Vt., which has 25 beds.

For that reason, Gobeille said, the state may opt to limit beds at the Berlin hospital to 16 and build smaller facilities elsewhere.

Because hospital emergency rooms have been overwhelmed with mental health patients who do not have access to long-term acute care, the state needs to expand access to treatment, Gobeille said, and another option could be adding beds at the UVM Medical Center.

The report does not include a recommendation to convert the former prison in Windsor to house some of the state’s mental health population, making only a brief mention of the 100-bed facility, which closed on Oct. 31.

The report lists several ideas for Windsor, and two other correctional facilities the report recommends would be closed, including sale of the property, as a re-entry center for former prisoners, a homeless shelter, transitional work facility or repurpose for other state use. Tourism, historical and recreational options were noted for the Windsor prison.

The first step would be for the facility to be “mothballed” by the Vermont Department of Building and General Services, the report states.

“The AHS team is willing to work to add information on transitional housing and the future of the Windsor facility,” the report says in its introduction.

A Department of Corrections report released when the Windsor prison closed estimated it would cost $1.3 million to convert the prison for transitional housing for former inmates and $6 million in annual operating costs.

As for the Franklin County proposal, state Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield, chairwoman of the House Corrections and Institutions Committee, said all options are on the table and no decisions have been made. No contracts have been signed, no permits have been issued, and no land has been purchased, Emmons said. “It’s just a report.”

“Our committee will look at the report in depth and work with policy committees as a team,” Emmons said. “Our buildings will determine our policy, and our policy will determine our buildings.”

Steve Howard, the executive director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association, is skeptical of the Scott administration’s proposal — particularly the prospect of CoreCivic assuming ownership of the prison campus.

“This is part of the private prison industry’s strategy,” Howard said. “Becoming a landlord is now one of their biggest revenue streams. The question for Vermonters is, do we want to turn over our entire correctional system to a massive, morally corrupt and morally questionable industry that will produce profits from their tax dollars?”

Howard said the scale of the facility is “out of step” with the Vermont approach to corrections.

In 2013 when the Shumlin administration decentralized the mental health system, the VSEA urged the governor to build a 54-bed facility to replace the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury, which was badly damaged in the floods from Tropical Storm Irene. Instead, Shumlin insisted on a 25-bed psychiatric hospital, which has not provided enough capacity for acutely mentally ill patients.

State officials didn’t listen to state workers, “and here we are fixing the mess,” Howard said.

“Now we’re at a point where front-line workers are saying, ‘Do not trust the private prison industry,’ and we hope the politicians will listen,” Howard said.

Valley News correspondent Patrick O’Grady contributed to this report.