Daily Archives: October 5, 2014

The for-profit gulag

Need some reasons why Vermont should end its dependency on out-of-state, for-profit prisons?

Y’know, aside from the fact that it’s wrong, that sending people two thousand miles away is arguably cruel and unusual punishment, and that it may well make rehabilitation more difficult because the inmates are isolated from everyone they know?

Yes, aside from all that.

And aside from the fact that prison contractor Corrections Corporation of America is a particularly scummy operation that’s gotten into trouble for inadequate medical care leading to inmate deaths, overbilling government clients, persistently understaffing prisons so that violence and drug abuse become widespread, providing “substandard food and medical conditions,” and aggressively lobbying for tougher detention and sentencing laws so they can fill their prisons, specifically backing Arizona’s notorious SB 1070, which turned every law enforcement official in the state into a de facto immigration enforcer?

Yes, even aside from all that. A couple of recent stories about Vermont’s dealings with the prison industry ought to give fresh impetus to the movement to bring our inmates home.

First, Vermont’s four-year contract with CCA expires next summer. But, as VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld reported this week, “the process isn’t likely to dramatically improve conditions” for Vermont’s out-of-state inmates:

[Corrections Commissioner Andy] Pallito says Vermont won’t bring a strong hand into its negotiations.

“There’s something like 100,000 beds in the out-of-state market,” Pallito said. “We’re only looking at 400 or 500 or 600 beds in total, and so we’re a pretty small consumer.”

… “Because we’re such a small consumer in this market, we’re kind of not in a position where we can dictate a lot of the contract particulars,” Pallito said. “And so we’re a little bit at the mercy of the bidders.”

“Kind of,” “a little bit.” What deft understatement.

So we’re pretty much at the mercy of whichever prison operator deigns to bother with our penny-ante contract. Or is desperate enough to fill vacant beds that it’ll go after the Vermont business. But they’re unlikely to cut us any slack.

The Florence Correctional Center, where 28 Vermont inmates are subject to CCA's tender mercies.

The Florence Correctional Center, where 28 Vermont inmates are subject to CCA’s tender mercies.

And second, an August 22 “disturbance” among a relative handful of Vermont inmates warehoused in Arizona resulted in 13 of them going into solitary confinement for over a month. The incident went unreported in Vermont until late September, when the Department of Corrections confirmed it to Seven Days’ Mark Davis.

This is troubling because, as outgoing State Rep. Suzy Wizowaty, head of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, noted, “If this had happened in Vermont, we would have heard about it.” And if CCA had its way, we won’t hear anything more:

In a written statement, CCA confirmed the incident and the inmates’ subsequent punishment, but did not provide additional details.

It’s unclear when CCA got around to informing the state of Vermont, but it wasn’t until September 10 — nineteen days after the incident — that DOC sent an investigative team to the Arizona prison where they “found no problems… and took no action.”

Meanwhile, as far as we know, the 13 inmates are still held in solitary, “confined to individual cells for 23 hours a day.” And according to Richard Byrne, the DOC’s out-of-state unit supervisor,

… it is unclear how long the punishment will last — CCA, not Vermont DOC, is in charge.

Great.

If you’d like to read more about the for-profit entity who’s “in charge” of our inmates, try reading “The Dirty Thirty: Nothing to Celebrate About 30 years of Corrections Corporation of America,” published in 2013 by Grassroots Leadership.

I say “try reading,” because you might just want to stop after a few pages and wonder why your Vermont tax dollars are going into the coffers of this corporate gang.

Hey, Bill Sorrell. I understand you’re running for re-election. Again. If you’re looking for a handy cause to burnish your fading reputation have a real, strong, positive impact, how about pushing for some serious sentencing reform? Maybe even a thorough review of Vermont’s inmate population, to see which ones could be released without endangering public safety? Given the number of nonviolent and elderly inmates (second highest percentage of inmates over 55 of any state), maybe we could get away without signing another contract with CCA.

You’d be a hero to your liberal base, Bill. Think about it.