Tag Archives: Department of Corrections

Black Lives Matter, Except When They Don’t, and Even When They Do They’re Pretty Damn Cheap

Hey, remember when the good folks of Montpelier painted “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in front of the Statehouse, and they got really upset when a guy committed a minor (and easily expunged) act of vandalism on it?

Well, the state of Vermont effectively obliterated the entire thing — with the spilled blood of a Black man. And the promise that “BLACK LIVES MATTER” will remain a well-meaning myth as long as Kenneth Johnson’s life can end so cheaply. And as long as Shamel Alexander gets a measly $30,000 in recompense for his wrongful arrest, conviction and imprisonment by the justice system of our fair state.

Johnson died last December while in custody at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport. According to a report from Vermont’s Defender General Matthew Valerio, Johnson’s death was the slow, painful result of negligence by medical and prison staff.

Valerio’s report, which you can find at the link to Seven Days’ website above, provides more than adequate grounds for termination and criminal prosecution of multiple unnamed staffers. Valerio outlines a case of homicide by professional negligence that’s appalling and inexcusable.

And an example of Your Tax Dollars At Work.

I don’t know what’s the worst part of this. To begin with, Johnson was in prison awaiting trial. He faced some truly heinous charges, but he hadn’t been convicted. He still wound up with a death sentence, thanks to your public servants and their designees. His medical care was botched from the get-go; he had a throat tumor obstructing his airway that could have been treated, but instead he was thought to have a cold or some other minor ailment. His pleadings for care fell on deaf ears.

From the report: “Security video showed Mr. Johnson in various stages of agony. He died after hours of struggling to breathe while nearby nurses did nothing to help… One [nurse] claimed she did not perform adequate checks [on Johnson] ‘because he was so fidgety.'”

Let’s hope this nurse quickly becomes an ex-nurse. She seems more constitutionally suited to a less vital profession, like maybe convenience store cashier or DMV clerk.

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And now, a word from the Department of Corrections’ Corrections Department

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?

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Can’t we find a Democratic budget expert? Please?

The Shumlin administration is a lame-duck affair. Top staffers have begun to leave, and it’s awfully difficult to hire outsiders for openings that will only last a little more than a year. So, people get promoted from within or shuffled around. I imagine by next summer, the administration will look like a last-place baseball team in mid-September: plenty of scrubs trying to act like major leaguers.

The latest departure: budget chief Jim Reardon. His replacement: prison chief Andy Pallito.

Okay, fine, maybe Pallito is the best person for the job. But he, like Reardon, was a prominent holdover from the Douglas administration. Which brings us to the question above: Can’t we find a Democratic budget expert? Please?

This is of a piece with Democrats relying on Neale Lunderville as their number-one fixit man. Hirings like these reinforce the stereotype that Republicans are serious administrators while Democrats are softies. (This stereotype isn’t actually true, at least not at the national level. Since Jimmy Carter left office, Republican Presidents have done far more to increase the national debt than Democrats.)

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The downside of subcontracting human services

We had an unintended confluence on the Thursday edition of the Mark Johnson Show, hosted by Yours Truly. Back-to-back interviews with VTDigger’s Morgan True and State Auditor Doug Hoffer turned out to cover some common themes.

True had reported on problems at Rutland Mental Health Services, one of the state’s “designated agencies” for providing social services. Hoffer had just released a very critical performance audit of the Corrections Department’s transitional housing program. I was in the middle of the show when the light bulb went off. Both interviews were kind of about the same thing: Inadequate oversight of human services contractors.

In both cases, an Agency of Human Services program is contracted out to nonprofit agencies that get virtually all their funding from the state. In a way, it’s a mutually captive relationship: the agencies are completely dependent on the state, and the state effectively has no options for replacing a poorly-performing contractor.

In their own way, True and Hoffer found similar problems in different areas of AHS: lack of consistent oversight, gaps in service provision, and inadequate methods for tracking performance. (In the case of RMHS, the situation boiled over into scandal.) The result is a system that looks good from a distance, not so good up close. Its failures are partly due to lax oversight; but we should also consider whether poor contractor performance may also be due, at least in part, to bare-bones funding by the state.

After the show was over, I pondered another issue: What does the Rutland situation have to say, if anything, about the Shumlin administration’s community-based mental health care system? Because those designated agencies are the front-line troops in that effort.

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Mary Hooper pulls some fat from the budgetary fire

Previously I brought you bitter tidings of a budget cut that would mean sending more Vermont inmates to for-profit, out-of-state prisons.

Well, my pessimism was premature. Today, Rep. Mary Hooper (D-Breezy Acres) introduced a plan to phase in the closure of the Southeast State Correctional Facility, and devote some of the projected savings to new re-entry programs designed to lower the inmate population. The plan appeared sound and convincing to the House Appropriations Committee. If it all works as planned, Vermont’s inmate census will be low enough when the prison closes, that no out-of-state transfers will be required. (Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito had estimated that 100 more inmates would have to be exported to the tender mercies of the Corrections Corporation of America.)

And bonus: the released inmates will be better prepared to make a successful re-entry into civilian life. That makes them less likely to re-offend.

Her proposal was accepted by the Appropriations Committee and folded into its budget plan. I don’t know all the details of Hooper’s proposal; I didn’t have a chance to speak with her today. But it’s good news. It turns a negative into a positive, and still allows the state to bank $1.7 million in savings from the prison closure.

More on today’s hot and heavy Appropriations action coming soon. Warning: not a lot of good news.

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.

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.


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.