New study: Vermont ships inmates to for-profit private prisons


Vermont is currently one of four states that routinely sends its prisoners across state lines to be housed in private, for-profit institutions.

A new report on interstate prison transfers and the private prison industry has found that there are more than 10,500 state prisoners housed in facilities that are not in their state of residence.

Holly Kirby of Grassroots Leadership, a 33-year old national social justice organization, estimates in her report "Locked Up and Shipped Away" that a combined total of $320 million will be spent this year by California, Hawaii, Idaho and Vermont, to send their inmates between 450 and 3,000 miles from home.

Of the 2,121 Vermont inmates currently incarcerated, 503 are out of state.

"We don't know exactly how much profit they make," said Kirby, during a phone press conference held Wednesday. "These companies are multi-billion dollar companies. The specific profits from out of state prisoners we can't know, we just know what the states are spending on these contracts."

The Corrections Corporation of America was formed in 1983

Currently the facilities housing Vermont inmates, including the Lee Adjustment Center in Kentucky and the Florence Correctional Center in Arizona, are operated by the Correction Corporation of America, the oldest and largest private prison company in the United States.

"Transferring prisoners out of state does little to solve our mass incarceration problem," said Kirby, who noted that the practice is costly, unsustainable, and is hurting families.

"We need to work on keeping people in their communities," she said, by implementing sustainable reforms to decrease the number of prisoners overall.

California is currently under a court order to reduce their prison population. Inmates from the Golden State are sent to the Arizona facility, alongside Vermonters and those from Hawaii.

"Shipping people away, shipping them to in-state private prisons and building new jails, instead of reducing the population is [not working]," said Diana Zuniga, of Californians United for a Responsible Budget.

"California continues to tell prisoners they could be moved out of state at any moment, due to overcrowding," said Zuniga, citing a lack of sustainable and lasting reforms.

"The reliance on contracts with out of state and in-state private prison facilities is only a Band-Aid, given that CCA has plans to build more prisons in California," she said during the phone conference.

The report highlights the negative effect of transfers on prisoners and their loved ones and fail to offer necessary services, saying the practice "impedes prisoner rehabilitation by diminishing prisoners' ties to family and community, compromising rather than enhancing the public good."

While state officials have pointed to prison overcrowding and the expense of housing an inmate within Vermont, at approximately $56,000 per year compared with the less expensive option of transferring them for as little as $25,000 per year, the savings may not be a long-term one.

"Research shows that visiting, and communicating with friends and loved ones helps with the rate of recidivism," said Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons in Hawaii.

"Of those arrested for nonviolent drug crimes, those who serve their sentence [away from home] are reconvicted at a higher rate for violent crimes when they come home," said Brady. "What else do we need to know?"

While it is clearly harder for Hawaiians to visit their loved ones than Vermonters, who can travel by land, the cost of time and transportation as well as the monetary expense of phone calls is, in many cases, prohibitive for families' ability to stay in contact.

Since 1972, there has been a 500 percent increase of incarcerations.

For the 25 percent of Vermont inmates currently incarcerated in the south, recent cuts have been made to healthcare services at those facilities, specifically in Kentucky, said Vermont State Rep. Suzi Wizowaty (D-Burlington).

"Instead of a criminal justice system that punishes crime, we want a criminal justice system that reduces crimes, and everybody wants the state to start using our tax dollars more effectively," said Wizowaty. "Public policy changes will do both of these things."

Wizowaty recommends increasing the use of alternatives to prison by utilizing and increasing community-based programs including referral and treatment options. "We need to end the war on drugs and realize it is a public health issue, like alcoholism, not a crime," said Wizowaty, who would like to see an end to the state's contract with CCA. "We need to change the rules of probation and parole, so we are not setting people up for failure."

Brady agreed, calling prison transfers a "banishment" to U.S. private prisons. "We need to end the war on drugs," she said. More than 1,700 inmates from Hawaii are currently at the Arizona facility.

In Vermont, a bill that would prohibit Vermont inmates from being sent to private prisons regardless of what state they are in has been introduced by Wizowaty two House sessions in a row.

"Whether or not it gets take up this time around will revolve around how successful we are in galvanizing the public around it," said Wizowaty.

Other suggestions include changing the regulations surrounding who is allowed to dispense controversial drugs such as methadone or buprenorphine.

Of private prisons, Brady cited ploys used to keep inmates within the system by denying them parole.

"Often, people are written up with informal grievances, which do not leave a paper trail," said Brady, listing common violations as ‘hindering,' and ‘failure to follow.' "[The prisons] like to do it right before that person has a video conference with the parole board," she said. "Then what happens is that person shows up on the video in shackles, which lends a very particular view of them. This keeps the money flowing and the beds warm."

Inmate overpopulation is a ‘crisis'

Although the inmate population in Vermont has been fairly level over the past few years, the detention population has been on the rise within the department over the last year, according to Cullen Bullard, the director of classification and facility designation for the state Department of Corrections.

That includes people who have been charged with a crime although not convicted, but are not able to post bail. "Bail doesn't decrease without a court hearing and the court making a determination," said Bullard. "So if somebody is held on a bail amount, it's that same amount until they go back to court again.

"I think the better model for all Vermont inmates and Vermont as a whole is to keep everybody in Vermont," said Bullard, who has worked for the department for over 21 years. "It allows a connection to be maintained with family, which increases the success rate of our inmates. But by pure numbers, that's not really an option," he said.

Although programs on substance abuse, education and career development, among others, may not be offered to out of state inmates, Bullard said prisoners are transported back to their home state in time to receive the treatments prior to release.

"The people being housed out of state -- in Vermont situations they are not missing out on available treatment," said Bullard, noting the programs contribute to helping people become successful citizens.

Using a standardized accreditment assessment tool, which reviews many factors of an inmate's history and future goals, Bullard said the department of corrections is able to recognize potential problems with education, career mobility and "soft skills," such as appropriate workplace behavior, which many need to be improved.

"For inmates that are in need of what we call ‘needs reducing programming,' we have switched to a more holistic model where we are addressing a variety of needs that a person may have, rather than the needs that are only part of their offense," he said.

Sentencing is unique in the Green Mountain State

Vermont differs from other states with their use of indeterminate sentencing, a system in which the court sentences are given in a ‘minimum to maximum' format, during which the department of corrections has the ability to hold you as long as they see fit within the given time frame.

"We really try to ensure that someone has appropriate housing," said Bullard, of one reason an inmate may be held longer than their minimum sentence. "We don't want people going out homeless."

"This is such a complicated problem," said Wizowaty of the issue. "We have 200 people in jail right now for lack of someplace to go. We may want to loosen the rules on what is acceptable housing for people who want to get out."

Many of the programs Vermont has in place to help drug offenders are located in Chittenden County, while other places around the state are left with fewer options.

"We can do a better job in trying to expand them around the state. We could do all of them, if we had the political will," said Wizowaty, who said she believes it is possible to reduce the out of state prison population to zero.

"Maybe not within a year, maybe it would take two years, or three," she said. "But for many people, incarceration at all is not productive."

"When people are failing and we send them back to jail for a year or when we send them to jail at all, where they take up a bed and don't get treatment, is counterproductive," she said.

"It's just a matter of understanding that recovery is a process."

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