Andy Pallito, the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, told lawmakers at a hearing on Thursday that there has been a worrying rise in prison gang activity over the last year.
“We have members in our facilities in Vermont that are members of very high level gangs, that we cannot send out of state,” Pallito said.
At the daylong Corrections Oversight Commission meeting at the Statehouse, Pallito also explained to lawmakers why he had suspended continuation of a citizens’ advisory group, and he talked about the difficulty of finding transitional housing for several hundred inmates who are ready to re-enter society.
Pallito said inmates from gangs outside Vermont are often charged with misdemeanors and so can not easily be transfered to two private prisons in Kentucky and Arizona. The state of Vermont sends hundreds of prisoners to out of state prisons each year.
The gang problem, he said, is a consequence of a recently expired contract with a Greenfield, Mass., jail where out of state misdemeanor offenders were sent. The corrections department did not renew the contract. Pallito said in an interview that the failure to renew the contract had limited financial implications.
Pallito said the department would likely have to procure a contract with a national organization to study ways to combat gang violence in prisons, including additional training for corrections staff in rural areas.
Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield, characterized the gang-related incidents as an increasingly important “sleeper issue” likely to see debate in the next legislative session.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said Pallito’s testimony reinforced the “scope of the problem” of Vermont gang activity.
“It’s very hard to operate a facility, to keep people safe, when gang activity is at the level the commissioner is talking about,” Sears said. “Our No. 1 obligation is at least to keep people safe within our correctional facilities.”
The commissioner provided few concrete figures to complement his anecdotal remarks on the topic.
In an interview, Pallito said he expected to offer a report on prison violence by the end of the calendar year to the oversight committee, but added: “We’re dealing with it right now.”
Pallito suspends citizens’ advisory group
The hearing also dealt briefly with Pallito’s recent 60-day suspension of the Corrections Citizens’ Advisory Group, a review panel of about a dozen members, which provides input from the general public on transparency and oversight of the corrections department.
Sears said he didn’t want the group to be discontinued, but he wanted to make sure the group remained “viable” and “workable” in light of Pallito’s comments that some group members view their quarterly two-hour meetings as a “waste of time.”
Gordon Bock, a member of the advisory group and a prisoner advocate, said the suspension made the corrections department “at least appear imperious and clandestine.” He said the group would have met on July 13 had it not been for the suspension.
“I don’t think we have too much transparency at all,” said Bock, chair of the prisoner rehabilitation group CURE Vermont. “I think we still didn’t have enough with both corrections oversight and the advisory group: now we have way less transparency, and not enough.”
Bock dismissed the alternatives proposed by Pallito, who suggested more public input through social media.
Rep. William Lippert, D-Hinesburg, also argued that a role for a citizens’ advisory group remained, since group members could offer valuable outside perspectives culled from their personal experience with prison issues. “I don’t think social media cuts it,” Lippert said.
A lack of housing keeps 198 inmates in jail
Another major meeting item involved the lack of appropriate transitional housing for 198 offenders who are otherwise ready to re-enter communities.
Defender General Matthew Valerio argued that if the corrections department used its discretionary powers, it could decrease this number by a third. Pallito disagreed with that assessment and said strict criteria for relocating ex-offenders should remain in place.
The number of inmates who have served their minimum sentence but cannot leave prison because they lack appropriate housing has almost doubled since 2006, from 106 in early 2006 to 198 presently.