Report hits Vermont on sending inmates out of state
MONTPELIER — A social justice organization based in North Carolina has released a report that is critical of the four states, including Vermont, that export prison inmates to for-profit correctional institutions in other states.
The report titled “Locked Up and Shipped Away: Interstate Prisoner Transfers and the Private Prison Industry” by Grassroots Leadership was released Wednesday. The organization also held a teleconference Wednesday to discuss the report with members of the media.
Holly Kirby, the author of the report, said the organization’s investigation “exposes a largely unreported practice that makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for prisoners and their families to maintain supportive ties that are critical to rehabilitation.”
According to the report, California, Idaho, Hawaii and Vermont together have around 10,500 inmates housed in out-of-state, for-profit prisons due to overcrowding. Vermont currently has 450 inmates housed in Kentucky and 30 in Arizona.
“The lack of state laws regulating these types of transfers have allowed state leaders to send incarcerated people, en masse, to private prisons without their consent, leaving incarcerated people and their families in the dark,” Kirby said.
According to the report, Vermont started the practice of sending inmates out of state in 2004 when it signed a contract with Corrections Corporation of America to house up to 700 inmates in Kentucky and Tennessee. The report quotes then-Corrections Commissioner Steve Gold as saying at the time, “The contract provides up to 700 offenders, but my hope and my goal really is to eliminate the need for any Vermonters having to go out of state while they are incarcerated. But at the present time we will need to use some out-of-state beds.”
The state later authorized payment of up to $61.7 million from 2011 to 2015 to house Vermonters in private prisons in Arizona and Kentucky, according to the report, citing another state contract with Corrections Corporation of America.
The report claims interstate transfers of prisoners to for-profit prisons serve the interests of an industry that views prisoners as commodities and perpetuates the country’s mass incarceration crisis. It uses the current Vermont contract as an example.
“The contract includes per diem increases for each year of the contract and 95 percent occupancy guarantee clauses at both facilities. The clause does not require Vermont to pay for unused beds, but stipulates that the Vermont DOC will lose priority for the use of the beds should the occupancy fall below 95 percent,” the report says.
The report recommends that states prioritize strategies to reduce prison populations so inmates in other states can be returned, and pass legislation that bans the exportation of incarcerated people from their home state to for-profit prisons.
Rep. Suzi Wizowaty, D-Burlington, proposed such legislation during the last legislative session. The bill, which is in the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, says no Vermont inmate can be transferred “to a privately-owned or operated out-of-state correctional facility unless living conditions at that facility meet or exceed those in Vermont.” The bill also calls for all Vermont inmates to be housed in public institutions by July 1, 2014.
Wizowaty, who also took part in Wednesday’s teleconference, said even though the practice has been going on for almost a decade in Vermont, there is growing opposition to it.
“We want to stop sending people out of state. We want to stop using private prisons. We want, instead of a criminal justice system that punishes crime, to have a criminal justice system that reduces crime,” Wizowaty said.
She said the state can reduce the prison population by increasing the use of treatment courts, court diversion and community-based reparative boards. She added that the country needs to end the war on drugs and recognize drug addiction as a public health issue and not a crime.
She said that while parts of the state have treatment courts and reparative boards, they aren’t statewide programs, and they could be expanded to help bring down prison populations. And even where the programs are available, they aren’t being used to their full potential.
“In Vermont, we have 13 elected state’s attorneys by county. Some of those prosecutors are more likely to refer people to some of the alternatives than others,” she said.
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