Jim Kenyon: Blame Is Misplaced for Moving Out-of-State Inmates

  • 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.

Published: 9/26/2018 12:02:34 AM

The Vermont Department of Corrections has taken a lot of heat — and understandably so — since announcing last week that it’s shipping 217 inmates, currently warehoused in Pennsylvania, to a private prison in Mississippi.

James Lyall, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, called it a “new low” in the state’s 20-year history of paying other states and for-profit prison companies to take inmates off its hands.

It’s hard to argue with Lyall’s assessment.

For starters, the DOC’s choice of business partners demonstrates an appalling lack of judgment.

There’s a reason the for-profit prison company headquartered in Nashville, Tenn., changed its name a few years ago from Corrections Corporation of America to CoreCivic. The company’s track record of mistreating and neglecting prisoners was so dismal it had every reason to disassociate itself from its past.

Did Vermont fall for the marketing makeover or, worse, did it choose to ignore what it knew about the company? Vermont DOC signed a contract that pays CoreCivic up to $18.4 million over two years. Under the deal, Vermont can send as many as 350 offenders to the 2,600-bed Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Miss.

After looking over the 63-page agreement, I’m not sure Vermont’s out-of-state inmates will fare any better in Mississippi than they did at Camp Hill State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania, where three Vermont inmates have died since June 2017.

The contract allows CoreCivic to keep offenders locked in their cells up to 18 hours a day. Recreation time, which is how many inmates blow off steam, can be limited to 90 minutes a day. Having a paying job can also be a way to pass the time, but CoreCivic is required to employ only 40 percent of Vermont inmates.

According to the prison’s 80-page handbook, inmates will be fed in their cells by prison staff. (Some people might consider this room service, but it seems to me just another way to keep prisoners in their cages.)

On the visitation front, the news is mixed. Visitors can shake hands with an inmate or give him a hug, which is rare in Vermont, where so-called “non-contact” visits are a strategy to reduce contraband.

The bad news: The prison is 1,400 miles from Vermont, which means visitors will be few and far between.

The contract calls for CoreCivic to offer some basic adult education classes and a few computer classes. The prison’s substance abuse treatment programs seem minimal. Offenders could probably use help with quitting smoking, too, since they could light up in Pennsylvania but not in Mississippi.

But enough picking on DOC. CoreCivic was one of only two bidders, and the low one at that.

In Vermont’s never-ending shell game of moving inmates from one out-of-state prison to another, it’s important to remember that the DOC is just the gatekeeper.

“You can’t put all of this on DOC,” said Tom Dalton, executive director of the nonprofit Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform. “They don’t make the laws.”

He’s referring to laws that too often call for prison time.

“We can’t make prison the default position unless we’re willing to build more prisons. I don’t think most Vermonters would support that,” Dalton said.

The buck doesn’t stop with elected officials.

Not enough Vermonters have cared sufficiently to make criminal justice reform a priority. For the last 20 years — a span of four governors and hundreds of legislators — voters have allowed officeholders to get away with paying lip service to putting rehabilitation ahead of punishment.

It’s not surprising. Most inmates aren’t a sympathetic lot.

Still, with 95 percent of offenders getting released at some point, it’s in the public’s best interest to make sure they leave prison in better shape than when they went in. Locking them up 1,400 miles away under the control of a for-profit prison company hardly seems a good idea.

To be fair, DOC would prefer keeping all inmates at home. “We simply don’t have the room,” Deputy Commissioner Mike Touchette said.

At one point, 700 inmates were being stashed in out-of-state prisons. Under former Gov. Peter Shumlin, in particular, the state began reducing its prison rolls.

But there’s still a ways to go. About 1,700 people remain behind bars. Roughly one-third are serving time for nonviolent offenses, such as theft, burglary and drug-related activities.

Do they need to be locked up? Might it not better serve them — and the state of Vermont — if they were given the training to find a decent-paying job and more access to substance-abuse treatment?

On that front, the DOC is working on a proposal for the Legislature to take up in January. It deals with so-called “good time,” which for all practical purposes the state eliminated not long after it began shipping out inmates. Good time, which gives offenders an opportunity to cut time off their sentences through work and educational programs, makes sense all the way around.

“Good time would be fantastic,” said Eric Daley, an inmate at the Southern Vermont State Correctional Facility in Springfield whom I talk with frequently. “It gives people an incentive to behave, get an education and get a job. A lot of people don’t care about doing those things now because they have nothing to lose.”

And Vermont has a lot to gain, but only if voters demand it from the folks they send to Montpelier.

 

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




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