T.J. Donovan: Vermont needs to end private prison warehousing

Editor’s note: This commentary is by T.J. Donovan, who has served as Chittenden County state’s attorney since 2006 and is currently a candidate for attorney general of Vermont.

Shipping Vermonters convicted of a crime out of state is cheap and easy but abandons the obligation we owe our communities and each other to ensure that offenders can re-enter our cities, towns and villages as productive members of safe communities.

Private prisons mean bad service, low to no accountability, and poor outcomes for those warehoused in these facilities. These for-profit corporations are run to serve the financial interests of their shareholders, not the interests of Vermont in rehabilitating citizens who have run afoul of the law. Private profit in the criminal justice system creates perverse incentives contrary to the rehabilitation goals that will best serve Vermont. Prison companies have an incentive to provide as few services as possible and to lobby politicians for longer prison sentences to increase profits.

 We must bring all incarcerated Vermonters back to Vermont to improve their futures as well as ours.


Private prisons substitute low wage, non-union, and relatively untrained employees for the well-trained corrections professionals who work in Vermont. Incarcerated Vermonters housed out of state also have less access to attorneys and even the cost of phone calls has been a scandal nationally. It is a basic fact, recognized by families, courts and advocates, that incarceration out of state is inferior to keeping Vermonters at home because contacts with the community and family significantly benefit both the prisoner and his or her family and re-entry becomes more challenging as family and community support is eroded.

From all this it is clear that private prisons are a bad investment for Vermont financially, morally and practically. We can and should do better. In failing to rehabilitate incarcerated persons, we fail to protect the future safety of our communities, while also failing to respect the individual person in our custody. More than 40 percent of incarcerated persons with sentences of over a year re-offend within three years of release. We have to reduce that rate. I believe one of the most important steps in achieving this goal is to eliminate the use of private prisons for Vermont’s incarcerated population. By doing so we can increase accountability for the rehabilitation process and increase the odds that offenders can be successfully reintegrated into their communities.

The best outcomes for our communities usually come from within our communities. For example, our local community justice panels, implementing restorative justice principles, enhance Vermonters’ public safety more than private prisons ever could. We all end up worse when we destroy community ties, breaking the bonds essential to creating good citizens. Prisons are a basic governmental obligation and the rehabilitation of offenders for the purpose of their re-entry into public life must be accomplished in a way that ensures the expectations of our communities are met. Vermonters must be able to rely on the competent and transparent administration of our prisons and have confidence that the state is supporting a well-trained, committed and efficient corrections workforce. Without the governmental and community oversight that exists in Vermont’s prison system, we have less ability to ensure incarcerated persons are treated fairly and have access to meaningful programs that will fulfill our goal of successful rehabilitation and reintegration.

We are making substantial progress in decreasing the number of Vermonters held in private prisons. In 2014, Vermont had 491 out of its 2,111 average daily incarcerated population being warehoused in out-of-state prisons. A year later, the population has been reduced to approximately 270, out of a total population of 1,760 incarcerated persons. While we have made progress, there is more to do. We must bring all incarcerated Vermonters back to Vermont to improve their futures as well as ours.

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  • Jamie Carter

    Perhaps you can get Shumlin to build a half dozen new prisons in state so we can pay twice as much to house criminals.

    • edward letourneau

      You get it. No one can explain why its cheaper so send criminals out of state, than it is to keep them here. — Which is also criminal by itself.

      • Paul Richards

        Donavan said; “Private prisons substitute low wage, non-union, and relatively untrained employees for the well-trained corrections professionals who work in Vermont. ” That’s a red herring for keeping the most corrupt, anti-constitutional monopoly there is. That distinction belongs to the public sector unions. I would much rather have non-union employees doing this job than a bunch of people on the gravy train with elite, discriminatory benefit plans that we are forced into paying for. That’s a monopoly of the worst kind!
        The tax payers of the state should have viable choices (anti-monopoly) rather than only the corrupt unions. Donavan is just afraid that this monopolistic Ponzi scheme is under attack.

  • Dave Silberman

    The first step we should take, immediately, is reducing (or outright eliminating) prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders, who don’t pose an actual danger to society.

    • William Hays

      Lock up the users and the dealers will go away.

  • Dave Bellini

    Thank-you T.J. The next Governor needs to follow through.

    • edward letourneau

      How about we rethink this and send the message out — “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime,” instead of coddling losers.

    • Tom Grout

      Better yet build these prisons next to Mr. Donovan and Mr. Bellini’s house.

  • Tom Cecere

    Nearly 200 prisoners are being held in Vermont due to lack of approved housing. No one involved in this push is suggesting building more prisons.

    As to the cost, it’s clear that some folks here don’t seem to understand how corporations actually work. They get a fixed price per prisoner per month, and “agree” to provide certain services. All of their profit, which by the way is huge even after paying a CEO $3 million per year, comes from redefining their provision of services to save money. I’d like to see the “don’t do the crime” types get by on 1800 calories a day. But, don’t worry, you can have your family, if you have one and can afford it, buy you a cliff bar at $5 apiece…as well as a sweater, eyeglasses and shampoo at a 300% markup.

    The education and health care are deplorable. Prisoners are routinely charged $5 per minute for phone calls. All the while, these managers are paying lobbyists to “keep those beds filled” so they can receive this year’s fat bonus.

    Corporations should not be tasked with providing services that have captive customers, as they will ALWAYS act to maximize profit (their legal obligation) by cheating those people. The only way to keep corporations doing what they should is to allow customers to have viable choices (anti-monopoly laws). How would you like your cable company to be your jailer?

    • Neil Johnson

      It’s not the corporations that are evil, it’s the government officials that are lobbied and allow this crap to happen that’s the issue. It’s a controlled, monopoly, that’s why you have this situation.

  • Robert Spottswood

    This is well articulated, logical and sound. Thank you.
    It helps us see the difference between treating offenders as people who can be treated versus objects (“losers”, “criminals”, etc.) to be discarded at the lowest haul-away price we can find.
    Prisons for profit always remind me of John Poindexter (remember him under Reagan and Bush?) proposing a futures market (the Policy Incentives Market) that would have rewarded participants for accurately predicting geopolitical trends in the Middle East and elsewhere — effectively allowing participants to profit from predicting assassinations and terrorism. Note the short hop which would follow — from prediction to incentives.