Editor’s note: This commentary is by Suzi Wizowaty, who is the executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform. She is a former member of the Vermont House of Representatives.What is the goal of the “criminal justice system”? What do we want to accomplish? We at Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform believe that many fewer people should be in prison, and for a much shorter time, and we are working to that end. But meanwhile, because Vermont still sends to prison more people than we have room to hold — the prison population having quadrupled since 1980 — we still have 300 men living in a private, for-profit prison in Baldwin, Michigan: North Lake Correctional Facility.
Things are not going well at North Lake. But they’re improving.
An inmate’s letter recently in the press gave a distorted view, however, as it seemed to conflate serious and trivial concerns. We’d like to clarify. There are indeed some basic living conditions that are difficult, i.e. no windows in the cells. These will not change until we bring the men back to Vermont. At the same time, a number of things that can change have changed. Curtains went up in the showers recently, for example. Lights now go off in the cells earlier and don’t go on every two hours all night long, so that men can get some uninterrupted sleep. Recreation time, at first limited to an hour a day, can be as much as three hours a day. And the four units in which the men formerly in Kentucky live have each elected two “unit reps” and an alternate, to speak for them.
Unfortunately, a number of serious issues remain:
• Phones. Men in Michigan are restricted to a phone list of 20 people, which can only change every 45 days. As one inmate noted, “There’s no penological reason for this.” The phone contacts with the outside are his only positive activity.
More than anything else, being treated badly causes harm. As one man wrote, “If they keep treating us like hardened criminals, people are going to start acting that way.”
• Emergency call boxes. These are placed outside men’s cells, rather than inside; inmates have been told they are simply “installed backwards.” This matters because the doors don’t open with a push of a button but through the computer system, which “sometimes takes 15 minutes,” as one man said.
• Health care. Private prisons are not known for providing the best care in the first place, often requiring multiple requests for basic attention and resulting in delays in medication and treatment, and we’re already hearing this. There is (as yet?) no access to medical care on weekends or holidays. A diabetic lacked insulin for eight days, and “guys are being taken off meds they’ve been on for years with no explanation,” according to another inmate.
• Access to jobs. There are fewer jobs available at North Lake than in Kentucky, and the available jobs pay roughly $2 a day, a dollar less than the rate in Kentucky. One man wrote that he’d been a canine trainer in Kentucky for five years, was told he’d have a job in Michigan, and so far has no sign of a job possibility in sight: “We sit here all day with nothing to do.” Another man who has no job and wants one wrote, “I’ve relied on the $3 a day [in Kentucky] to survive and to get food, hygiene and clothing when needed. Now? Nothing.”
• Price gouging. Adding insult to injury, the commissary prices for basic goods are two to three times what they were in Kentucky, from the same supplier. A pair of gray sweatshorts was $10.50 and is now $21.50. The same cheap sneakers that used to cost $28 now cost $52. Number 10 envelopes and cotton swabs went up 200 percent. High prices for men making $2 a day, when they’re lucky enough to have a job at all.
• Access to programming. Executives from GEO Group, the corporation that owns and runs North Lake, claimed in their stockholder phone call recently that one of the reasons they got the Vermont contract was because of their exceptional programming. Inmates at North Lake report little to no programming. Men do have access (required by law) to computer kiosks for legal research. It’s hardly necessary to point out that education and programming “aid in rehabilitation,” i.e. give people a chance to grow and change. This, not warehousing, should be the goal of prison.
• Dehumanizing behavior of some staff. We’re hearing that staff are disorganized and “the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.” We’re also hearing that some staff, coming from more violent prisons, are excessively aggressive and belittling, adding stress. More than anything else, being treated badly causes harm. As one man wrote, “If they keep treating us like hardened criminals, people are going to start acting that way.”
North Lake Correctional Facility closed some years ago as a youth facility and re-opened July 1 as a larger, more “modern” prison able to hold up to 1,500 men. GEO Group assured stockholders this week that earnings would be up in the fourth quarter, thanks to an additional 200 men expected. A potential plan to move 1,000 men from Washington state may or may not materialize. Those additional 200 men will not come from Vermont. There are still too many people in jail who don’t need to be. The solution is within our reach. When we stop holding people beyond their release date for lack of housing, stop incarcerating people for technical violations of probation or parole, and stop locking up even half of the non-violent offenders, we’ll be able to stop shipping men out of state to for-profit prisons.