Out-of-state prisons will be a reality in the Vermont corrections system until the state reduces its prison population, Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito said Tuesday.
"Until we decide that we're going to put people in jail less we are in the out-of-state business," Pallito said in an interview.
Discussion about Vermont's practice of sending about 500 prisoners to facilities in Kentucky and Arizona renewed this year after news broke in January that a wing of 205 Vermont prisoners in Kentucky were on lockdown after a series of assaults and general unrest.
The lockdown eased gradually and ended Feb. 4. The Department has asked private contractor Corrections Corp. of America (CCA) to increase security in the Lee Adjustment Center in Beattyville, Ky., Pallito said.
The commissioner said he knows that some in the Statehouse want to stop contracting with private prisons. But until the state decides to stop sending prisoners out of state, it will be necessary, he said.
Pallito said he doesn't differentiate between private and state prisons, as long as they provide good service at a good cost.
"Is there anybody else out there who is able to provide us with 500 beds, varying levels of security and one to two sites?" he said.
When it cast a net for prison contractors, the state had few bidders, he said. CCA was not the only bidder last time, but was the only qualified one, he said.
CCA is in the first year of a two-year extension of an original two-year contract.
In all, DOC has an average daily population of 2,078 incarcerated people, according to fiscal year 2013 data, the most recent available. That is a 9.5 percent increase in the past decade, according to the DOC FY15 budget presentation.
There are also about 430 people detained in Vermont corrections facilities as they await trial, according to the budget presentation.
The 500 inmates sent out of state is down from a high of 589 in fiscal year 2012, the report says.
Rep. Suzi Wizowaty, D-Burlington, for several years has filed an unsuccessful bill to stop sending prisoners out of state.
She agreed Tuesday with Pallito's contention that the number of prisoners could be reduced by not sending low-level offenders to prison.
"He is absolutely right. We need to stop making harsher penalties and new crimes every year," Wizowaty said.
The state should focus on alternatives to incarceration, which are more effective at reducing recidivism, she said.