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Jim Kenyon: Where There’s Smoke ... There’s Likely to Be Higher Inmate Health Care Costs

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 12/9/2017 11:38:34 PM
Modified: 12/10/2017 12:17:01 AM

In 1992, Vermont became the first state to completely ban smoking indoors and outdoors at its prisons. Outlawing cigarettes was an attempt to curb indoor air pollution and head off lawsuits by nonsmoking inmates.

But 25 years later, some Vermont inmates are once again legally lighting up inside prison fences — albeit 450 miles away at a Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution where Vermont shipped 270 inmates in June.

For nearly 20 years, it’s been Vermont’s policy to keep hundreds of inmates in out-of-state prisons, both to ease overcrowding at home and to save money — in the short term, the state saves roughly $30,000 a year per inmate sent to Pennsylvania. And Pennsylvania isn’t the first state during that time to allow Vermont inmates to smoke.

So why should Vermonters care about offenders puffing away?

After all, if they want to blow nearly $10 on a pack of Marlboros at the prison canteen, that’s their business. And if they suffer the ill effects of smoking while incarcerated in Pennsylvania, it’s the Quaker State’s problem. Under the contract between the two states, Pennsylvania is responsible for inmates’ medical care.

But here’s the problem: It’s highly unlikely that Vermont prisoners will stay in Pennsylvania forever. Once back in Vermont’s prison system, state taxpayers are on the hook for whatever ails them. And since 90 percent of the nation’s inmates eventually are released, there’s the matter of what happens when they leave prison. I’m guessing that when they’re back on the streets, a fair number of Vermont offenders won’t immediately — if ever — be able to afford private health insurance.

So who do you think will have cover the cost of their health care?

Just another example of why warehousing inmates in Pennsylvania is a bad deal in the long run for Vermont taxpayers.

I think it’s a safe bet that when they return to Vermont, many inmates will be in worse shape — physically and mentally — than when they arrived in Pennsylvania.

At the 3,200-bed state pen in Camp Hill, which is outside Harrisburg, they’re locked in their cells for all but three or four hours a day. A few dozen inmates have been lucky enough to get jobs mopping floors or cleaning tables in the cafeteria, where the starting pay is 19 cents an hour.

“The job situation is not as robust as we would like,” Vermont DOC Deputy Commissioner Mike Touchette told me.

There’s not much the state can do about it. The same goes for smoking. Under its agreement, the DOC has turned over nearly all control of inmates to the Pennsylvania DOC. A majority of Pennsylvania’s 25 prisons permit smoking in “outdoor designated areas,” said Amy Worden, the state DOC’s press secretary.

That may overstate the situation. Karl Rominger, a former Pennsylvania lawyer now serving five to 18 years for embezzlement, described the day he arrived at his Camp Hill cell in a guest editorial for PennLive, a state news website.

“I was greeted by an affable inmate, cigarette in hand, openly smoking over our shared toilet,” wrote Rominger, whose claim to fame was being a defense attorney for Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State football coach who sexually assaulted numerous children.

Camp Hill inmates are told to report indoor smoking offenders, including guards, to prison officials. “This creates a Hobbesian choice for the inmate,” Rominger argued. “Tell on the guard or fellow inmate and risk being shanked or beaten, or be ravaged slowly by the secondhand smoke.”

I asked Worden why Pennsylvania allows smoking. In a nutshell, she said, that’s the way it’s “always been.” I’ve heard through the prison grapevine that about half of Vermont inmates have either resumed or taken up the habit.

At the beginning of this column, I mentioned the DOC’s smoking ban dates back to 1992. Well, sort of. After only five months, the DOC retreated a bit to permit smoking outdoors in designated areas. It seems a “thriving black market (had) pushed the price of cigarettes in jail to $40 a pack,” The Associated Press reported back then.

It wasn’t until 2004 that Vermont reinstituted the total ban. I’m not naive enough to believe that smoking has been eliminated at the state’s six prisons. Smuggling is a prison art form.

What got me to thinking about prisons and smoking in the first place was a meeting of the Vermont Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee at the Statehouse last week. DOC officials shared findings from a national report called “Prison Health Care: Costs and Quality” issued by the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts in October.

Vermont ranks second — behind only California — in per inmate health care spending. In fiscal year 2015, Vermont spent $13,747 per inmate. Pennsylvania ranked 34th, just ahead of Arkansas, at $4,548 per inmate.

That helps explain why it costs $57,000 a year to keep an offender behind bars in Vermont, while Pennsylvania is willing to do it for less than $27,000.

I can’t help but wonder how much more Vermont will end up paying in health care costs for the prisoners it has shipped to Pennsylvania.

Talk about a smoking gun.

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




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