LAURA KRANTZ

VTDigger

A longer-than-usual lockdown of Vermont inmates in a Kentucky prison is prompting state officials to question whether there is adequate staff in that facility, Department of Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito said Thursday.

Since Jan. 15, 205 Vermont prisoners in a Beattyville, Ky., for-profit facilty have been locked in their dormitory after a series of assaults and fights, a DOC employee told lawmakers Tuesday.

The state has developed a plan with the private company that runs that prison to remedy the situation is calling on the company to carry it out, Pallito said.

"We need to make sure they follow through on the plan," Pallito said. He said the unusual length of the lockdown is allowing officials to gather information about the violence. The lockdown was sparked by a series of incidents that included hitting, punching and one person who slashed another with a short "shank," or homemade knife. The violence was not sexual, he said.

DOC will also examine the number of staff at the Lee Adjustment Center, he said. Vermont facilities have one guard per unit, a DOC staff member told lawmakers Tuesday. In Kentucky, staff cycle between three pods.

The lockdown is now a "modified lockdown," a spokesman for Corrections Corp. of America, which operates the prison, said Thursday. That means inmates are given limited time outside their cells daily in the "day room areas."

CCA spokesman Steve Owen said the lockdown was precautionary and allows CCA and DOC officials to review the reported events and enhance security to avoid future problems.

"CCA is firmly committed to providing safe, secure housing and high-quality rehabilitation and re-entry programs to the Vermont inmates," Owen wrote in an emailed statement.

"(The incidents) happen quick, which is always why it's the hardest to ferret out," he said. The incidents in Kentucky appear to be gang- or debt-related, Pallito said between two hearings on a DOC budget adjustment request Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Vermont Defender General on Thursday said supervision in the Kentucky facility is more relaxed than in Vermont prisons.

Matthew Valerio called Lee Adjustment Center a "reasonably stress-free environment to do time in," largely because there are fewer rules to enforce. Every so often sometimes the issues are personal, sometimes they rise to ‘potential gang-like stuff' but every now and then something bubbles up and you have an incident or two."

Investigators and lawyers from the Defender General's Prisoners' Rights Office visit the Kentucky prison three or four times a year and plan to do so in early March, Valerio said. He said nothing major has changed in the past decade at the 816-bed Kentucky facility, which right now only houses Vermont inmates.

Valerio said his staff told him the recent violence might have been sparked by personal issues between new prisoners coming from Vermont and those who have been in Kentucky for awhile.

"People trying to mark their territory, so to speak," Valerio said, noting the so-called gang affiliations might be more label than reality.

There are 460 Vermont prisoners in Kentucky. There are 39 Vermonters at a prison in Arizona. Prisoners sent to Kentucky are often those without special medical needs who simply must serve time, Valerio said.

The most frequent complaint his staff hears from inmates at all facilities, local and out-of-state, is that prisoners' medical needs are not being addressed, Valerio said.

The practice of sending prisoners out of state, which started under former Gov. Howard Dean, is controversial. Although it saves the state money, some lawmakers have unsuccessfully tried to stop it.

"I think that we'd all rather have them back in Vermont if we had our druthers, but politically and fiscally we've got to figure out how to do that and nobody's been able to figure that out for a long time," Valerio said.

Pallito said lockdowns happen frequently in Kentucky and especially in Vermont facilities. "We do lockdowns in a Vermont correctional facility monthly, I'd say," he said.

The state's contract with CCA is set to expire in June 2015 and must be put out to bid, according to Richard Byrne, the DOC out-of-state unit supervisor who spoke to the House Corrections and Institutions Committee on Tuesday.