Reports from Michigan prison prompt concerns about conditions

A series of disturbances at a private prison in Michigan that houses Vermont inmates prompted investigation by state officials.

In late May, the advocacy group Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform heard reports that inmates in the segregation unit of the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan, had been stripped and their mattresses removed from their cells. The prison, which holds 236 Vermont prisoners, is run by the GEO Group.

Matt Valerio

Vermont Defender General Matt Valerio. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

The reports prompted a trip to Michigan by two lawyers with the prisoners’ rights office, a division of the Vermont defender general’s office. They traveled to Michigan on Sunday and were scheduled to return Wednesday.

Mike Touchette, director of facilities for the Vermont Department of Corrections, said the reports stemmed from a series of incidents over the course of two days at the facility.

While running a fire drill, prison staff evacuated a restrictive housing unit. They used a metal detector during the evacuation and discovered “significant” contraband on three people, Touchette said.

The discoveries prompted a broader screening for contraband, during which prisoners were strip-searched. Touchette said some form of clothing was offered to everyone. Some prisoners’ mattresses were taken from them temporarily if they were using them as shields or to block the view of guards during the search, he said.

He also said a couple of inmates were taken to a hospital for medical treatment. He said he could not go into specifics but that they were not there because of someone else’s actions.

Touchette said the DOC’s operations manager received notification about the incidents from the GEO Group late on May 25, shortly after the first contraband items were discovered. He said that is in compliance with the contract, which requires notification of major incidents within 24 hours and minor incidents within 72 hours.

Touchette first learned of the incident when he was contacted by a citizen, he said.

Vermont’s out-of-state prison population was moved to the Michigan facility in June 2015, after the state switched contractors from the Corrections Corp. of America to the GEO Group.

“I am very happy with the level of communication and service that we’ve had with GEO,” Touchette said. “That said, it’s always difficult to manage and get a sense for the culture and climate of an institution when you’re hundreds of miles away.”

Suzi Wizowaty, of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, said it is very difficult to get the full truth behind reports that come out of the private prisons that house Vermont inmates out of state.

“We need more transparency here,” Wizowaty said.

She said the group often hears directly from prisoners as well as from family members, while the DOC hears reports from the GEO Group.

“What is the full story, that’s really difficult to find out,” Wizowaty said.

According to Defender General Matt Valerio, the details of the incidents are still unclear. The reports have varied greatly, he said, and he will hear from the attorneys after they return to Vermont.

“What we’re trying to do is figure out what went on,” Valerio said.

Members of his office make regular trips to the North Lake Correctional Facility to interview inmates and monitor conditions. The next visit is scheduled for late June, Valerio said.

Defender general’s office staff members are in correctional facilities in Vermont every day, he said. They have relationships with superintendents, caseworkers and officers, and have opportunities to hear about issues directly from inmates.

Distance is a challenge when it comes to maintaining oversight of the conditions out of state, Valerio said.

The GEO Group has always been “accommodating and pleasant and professional” with the prisoner’s rights office, Valerio said. He added that he can’t say his office has “a close working relationship with them at all.”

Touchette said he had been in communication with the prisoners’ rights office to share his knowledge about the incidents. The Corrections Department looks forward to hearing what the lawyers learned during their trip “so we can address any areas that might need attention,” he said.

Disturbances are not unusual in the corrections system, he said, and similar incidents occur in Vermont facilities.

“There are small pockets of times when things pick up, and then they kind of go back to a normal pace,” Touchette said.

Elizabeth Hewitt

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