Some Vermont inmates have been moved to the North Lake Correctional Facility in Michigan under a new state contract with GEO Corp. Courtesy photo
Shortly after Peter began serving his sentence in St. Johnsbury in 2013, he started working in the prison's kitchen. He worked hard at his job, in part believing that the employment would prevent him from being transferred to Vermont's out-of-state facility.
But, this year, on one August Sunday, Peter was awoken at 4:30 a.m. By Tuesday, he was lodged at the Northlake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan — the privately owned prison that houses hundreds of Vermont inmates.
Peter, who preferred not to give his surname, told lawmakers about the conditions at the GEO Group-owned prison over speakerphone during a meeting of the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee Friday — as part of a broader conversation the panel is having about how Vermont might make better use of the facilities.
Peter's testimony came at a time when Vermont is working to downsize the out-of-state program.
While Vermont's general prison population has been on the decline in recent years, the numbers in the out-of-state program are falling rapidly. This week, the Department of Corrections brought 30 inmates back to Vermont from Baldwin. The number of out-of-state prisoners, 241, is at the lowest level in years.
Peter painted a stark image of life for inmates in Baldwin. "They're not interested in what's going on with anything, really, as long as they get your money," he said.
Lack of jobs, Peter told lawmakers, is the crux of the problem in the facility run by the GEO Group in Baldwin, Michigan, that now houses Vermont's out-of-state prisoners. He wasn't able to find employment there. Distance is also a factor.
"Men that go out of state become depressed," he said.
When Peter arrived in Michigan, he worried that he would spend the remaining 23 years of his sentence there without having a chance to see his family.
Peter's stint in Baldwin was relatively short. He returned to Vermont about a month after he arrived there for a court hearing, and he's now being held at a facility in Newport.
But Peter raised questions about why the state continues to fund the out-of-state system instead of investing more in in-state facilities.
"I'm not sure why the state doesn't find halfway houses, find some kind of programming somewhere so these guys that are in here, young kids that are in here, you know, they don't have way to get out, they don't have a place to go," Peter said.
Department of Corrections Commissioner Lisa Menard and Facility Operations Manager Dominic Damato told lawmakers that the department will be changing the criteria for how individuals are selected to be sent out of state.
The selection process will be changed to factor in program eligibility, release date and whether they need to complete education programming.
Seth Lipshutz, who heads the Prisoner's Rights Office of the Defender General's Office, spent three days at the Baldwin prison in October.
From his conversations with some 60 inmates during that time, he agreed with Peter that jobs are a big issue. The prices in the commissary are also a common complaint, he said.
Lipshutz raised concerns about the layout of the wings in the GEO Group facility, which are designed so that fewer correctional officers are needed for each wing, and concerns "about what I perceive to be more inmate-on-inmate violence."
"You have strong people preying on weak people, forcing them to pay rent to live in their cells," Lipshutz said.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the committee, said after the meeting that Peter's testimony prompts questions about how the state can work to close its program.
"We're doing as good a job as we can given our limitations on number of beds in state to bring everybody home," Sears said. "But unless we're willing to create more halfway houses or expand home confinement, or build a new facility, that's not a reality."