Tag Archives: Corrections Corporation of America

Rebalancing the inmate portfolio

The House Appropriations Committee is putting in long hours this week, trying to finish work on the budget by Friday afternoon. I don’t envy them their task… but I will point out one little detail regarding one of its proposed cuts.

One of the cuts in committee chair Mitzi Johnson’s list is the closure of the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor. Well, according to Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito, that would mean sending another 100 inmates to out-of-state, for-profit prisons.

Vermont has been making strides toward bringing its inmates home — possibly inspired by last summer’s court ruling that sending male inmates out-of-state without also sending female inmates is unconstitutional. The state chose not to appeal for fear the decision would be applied to the whole system. As it stood, only the inmate who filed suit was brought back to Vermont.

But the legal Sword of Damocles still hangs by a hair, so dozens of inmates have been repatriated in recent months. The out-of-state count is down to 340.

The fly in the ointment is that our contract with the Corrections Corporation of America calls for a minimum census of 380 inmates. If the count falls below that and stays there long enough, CCA can impose penalties.

That’d be inconvenient.

Our Democratic rulers seem to be taking steps to prevent that from happening. Gov. Shumlin’s budget proposal included the lease of 60 inmate beds to the U.S. Marshal’s office. And now we have a plan to close a state prison. The lease is a revenue source; the prison closure is a budget savings; and on top of that, we get the added bonus of avoiding penalties!

Everybody wins, right?

Well, everybody except the inmates we’ll continue to ship out of state, far away from their families and friends.

Inmates aren’t people; they’re fungible assets

For those who believe that shipping prison inmates to distant for-profit prisons is immoral (human rights), unconstitutional (judge’s decision, uncontested), or simply counterproductive (isolation may lead to recidivism), this week brought just a little bit of good news courtesy of the soon-to-depart Laura Krantz at VTDigger.

After bringing home a few dozen inmates this week, Vermont has roughly 360 inmates in a Kentucky prison and another 40 in Arizona — the lowest number in a decade.

With the good news came some bad: a provision in Vermont’s contract with the Corrections Corporation of America imposes penalties if the inmate population falls below 380. We are now very close to that figure.

Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito admits that the provision creates a disincentive for Vermont to bring more prisoners home, even if there’s space in state prisons.

Then came the Governor’s budget address on Thursday. One of the revenue upgrades is $1.7 million from the lease of 60 inmate beds to the U.S. Marshals.

Hmmm. A lower inmate population could trigger higher payments to CCA… but now we’re leasing five dozen beds, putting the squeeze on in-state prison space… Hey presto: Synergy! We save money on CCA and we make money from the U.S. Marshals.

Fiscally, it’s a win-win.

If you don’t mind treating your inmates like commodities instead of human beings.

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.