When last I wrote, I brought you the sad, unfinished tale of Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon’s quest for a visit to North Lake Correctional Facility, the Michigan for-profit prison contracted to house surplus Vermont inmates. And I promised an update when I heard from the Shumlin administration.
Well, here it is. Just got a nice call from Corrections Commissioner Lisa Menard and Director of Facility Operations Mike Touchette. The gist: Kenyon’s request got lost in the shuffle, and Menard would be happy to have him tour the prison.
For those just joining us, Kenyon submitted a written request to the Department of Corrections on August 13. There was no response for over a month. And then, DoC simply told him that his request had been passed on to prison operator GEO Group. Kenyon emailed GEO directly on September 25. As of the 30th, he hadn’t gotten an answer. And another reminder: Menard only recently became DoC Commissioner; she replaced Andy Pallito earlier this month.
Which brings us to the present. What about the delay in responding?
“I’m not happy with the time it took,” Menard said. “Commissioner Pallito gave [Kenyon’s request] to Mike; he gave it to someone else; and then we all went about our jobs, thinking it had been handled.”
Oopsie. But honestly, they say, Kenyon is welcome to tour North Lake.
“I would like him to see the facility,” said Menard. “It’s new, it’s clean, it’s well managed.”
Touchette added: “It would be a great opportunity for him to look at the facility and the operations. The management team has done a fantastic job.”
So, a screwup to be sure. Better than a cover-up, I suppose.
Here’s the language regarding facility tours from the GEO Group’s webpage for media.
Tour of any GEO-Operated facility must be approved by the governing agency of jurisdiction and GEO. Once approved, the appropriate facility personnel will provide the necessary guidelines and rules prior to the tour to include; but not be limited to; proper attire, identification, and items prohibited into the facility. Facility tour requests should be submitted in writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is a clunky process, to have to go through DoC and then the prison operator. It’d give management plenty of time to shine things up before admitting the media. But that’s what happens when you subcontract your prison work.
Given all of that, I’d expect that Kenyon should get an answer from GEO any day now. At least I’d hope so.
For background information, Touchette sent me a link to the DoC’s general Media Access policy. And I found some stuff that strikes me a little funny. I’m sure it’s standard operating procedure in the corrections world, but it’s pretty restrictive.
The DoC “understands the need for media access” and “aspires to fulfill that need” but includes a wide-ranging set of caveats:
… taking into consideration the safety and security of the correctional facilities, the privacy of the incarcerated population, the impact on victims and the community overall and policy objectives of the corrections system.
That potentially covers a multitude of sins, as they say. For instance, is it a “policy objective” to limit bad publicity? Or, in GovSpeak, “maintain public confidence”?
Also, if you manage to get inside the gates, you can’t bring any video, audio, or photographic gear. The DoC provides “one opportunity each year… to update file footage of the correctional facilities to run with general stories.” Photography and filming is restricted to “specified areas of the correctional facility exterior and limited interior.” And,
At no time will inmates be recorded (visual or audio), unless the recording is for Departmental business.
One other note. Earlier this week, the Burlington Free Press’ Mike Donoghue tried to spark a kerfuffle over a Shumlin administration memo on media contacts. It basically said that staffers should contact Governor Shumlin’s office before responding to media inquiries. (Which is pretty much common practice in any large organization, public or private.)
Well, if Donoghue thinks that memo was unreasonably oppressive, he should get a load of the Corrections Department’s policy on interviews with DoC staff:
All requests for staff interviews in relation to Departmental business must be approved by the respective Central Office Director after consultation with the Deputy Commissioner. Any time a media organization makes a request to conduct an interview with a staff member, the following steps are to be followed:
1. The staff member will notify their immediate supervisor of the request and its intended purpose;
2. The receiving supervisor will notify the Facility Superintendent or Field District Manager who will notify the respective Central Office Director to ensure that such an interview does not conflict with emergency operations, lawsuits, or other departmental business;
3. The Central Office Director will approve or deny the request after consultation with the Deputy Commissioner.
The cynical blogger is tempted to add a fourth point: “By then, it is hoped that the media organization will have given up or forgotten about the whole thing.”
So, Jim Kenyon would be welcome to tour the Michigan prison — or any of Vermont’s own facilities. With proper notice, a goodly supply of patience, and lots of restrictions.