Tag Archives: Jim Kenyon

The Corrections Culture

Corrections Commissioner James Baker continues to make the right noises. On Friday, after news that more than two-thirds of Vermont inmates at a Mississippi for-profit prison had tested positive for coronavirus, Baker talked of accountability and responsibility and the need for a culture change inside his department.

Now, if only he can make it happen. The DOC is a hidebound place, full of long-tenured employees whose kneejerk reaction is to defend the status quo.

In one of his first actions, Baker sent two DOC administrators to Mississippi to get a first-person look at things. He said he was “reassured” upon hearing their reports.

Not so fast, my friend. One of the two who made the trip was DOC facilities operations manager Bob Arnell. That’s the Bob Arnell who was once the superintendent of the state’s extremely troubled women’s prison.

I’m sure ol’ Bob knows all about problematic institutional culture. After all, he became superintendent after the inglorious departure of his predecessor, David Turner, who requested reassignment in 2012 “days after a report emerged that condemned the conditions” at the prison. (Turner, “a veteran employee” of the DOC, was shuffled elsewhere in the department.)

And we all know that, ever since, the women’s prison has been the very model of excellence. Oh wait.

In recent years, …guards have sexually assaulted inmates, harassed female employees, and pursued sexual relationships with women who have left the prison but remain on furlough, probation or parole — and, therefore, under DOC supervision.

That’s from a December 2019 story by Paul Heintz of Seven Days, reporting on widespread allegations of sexual misconduct and drug use in the prison — and the almost complete lack of DOC response to all of it. Except to threaten retaliation against inmates who had the guts to complain.

I don’t know how long Arnell was in place at the facility, but let’s conclude he didn’t have any perceptible impact on the “culture.” But I’m sure if he says everything is hunky-dory in Mississippi, we can take his word for it.

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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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Q: How do you gain access to Vermont’s for-profit prison? A: You don’t.

Update: For those finding this post afresh, please also read the following entry, which includes the response from the Department of Corrections. 

Here’s a little goodie from Vermont’s Best Newspaper (Out Of State Division), the Valley News. Columnist Jim Kenyon has a problem with the whole concept of for-profit prisons…

The mere concept of for-profit prisons defies logic. [The operator] only gets paid when its prison beds are occupied. It’s not in the financial interests of the company — or its shareholders — to work toward keeping people out of prison.

… what elected officials don’t talk about much is the toll that being so far away from home can have on inmates, their families and their future. Elected officials also gloss over the reasons why GEO and other for-profit prison companies are less costly.

(Kenyon’s essay is behind a semi-permeable paywall. If you sign up for the Valley News email list, you can read up to five articles per month for free.)

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