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.
By now you’ve heard the news: The U.S. Department of Justice will stop using private prisons. The price of stock in Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and The GEO Group, the two largest private prison companies, plunged 25 percent within a few hours of the announcement Thursday. By the end of the day, the nonprofit group In the Public Interest listed CCA stock’s drop in value as 50 percent and GEO Group’s at 35 percent.
It’s wonderful news and may seem to come out of the blue. But it follows last week’s release of a report by the DOJ that reiterated what advocates have been documenting for years: Private prisons are both less safe and less effective than those run by the government.
Chief among those advocates is the Texas-based group, Grassroots Leadership, which over the past two years has also partnered with Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform to highlight Vermont’s practice of shipping men out of state to private prisons. (In July 2015, Vermont’s “overflow” prisoners were moved from a CCA-owned prison in Kentucky to a GEO Group prison in Baldwin, Michigan.)
Other states have made more significant progress in reducing their numbers. We can do the same. The Vermont Legislature needs to step up to the challenge.
Nationally, the effort to shine a light on private prisons has had the tireless support of such groups as Detention Watch, ACLU, AFL-CIO, AFSC, AFSCME, Prison Legal News, Enlace, Justice Strategies, SEIU, Teamsters, CWA, AFGE, PICO, The Sentencing Project, Brave New Films, NAACP, and many more. Here in Vermont, the ACLU and Vermont State Employees Association have most strongly opposed prison privatization, though Gov. Peter Shumlin also expressed public opposition early on. Most recently, the strongest opposition to private prisons on the part of a political candidate has come from T.J. Donovan, currently the state’s attorney for Chittenden County and running for the post of attorney general. We know from our own supporters that Vermonters’ opposition to private prisons is strong.
Why do we use private prisons? Legislation to end their use has been introduced in Vermont in at least each of the past two sessions (i.e. four years), and has gone nowhere. The argument has been that there’s nowhere to put them, “them” being the out-of-state men. In fairness, small changes in public policies — as well as the national and statewide decrease in crime — have resulted in more than a 50 percent decrease in out-of-state prisoners, from about 500 to under 250. (The number refers to those under state supervision. Men and women in the federal system may be held anywhere.)
But of course we could do better. Other states have made more significant progress in reducing their numbers. We can do the same.
The Vermont Legislature needs to step up to the challenge. Unlike the U.S. Department of Justice, the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC) cannot on its own simply end the contract with The GEO Group, because the DOC has to take the men and women the courts send it. The DOC can continue to adjust its practices around the many kinds of release (probation, 12 kinds of furlough, parole) and stop re-incarcerating people for “technical violations” of their conditions. There is wide disparity here in the behavior of probation and parole officers, some of whom are more supportive than others. But the judiciary and state’s attorneys play a huge part. (It is the state’s attorneys who decide what charges to bring, and what plea bargains to propose, and in most cases have the largest role in determining how long someone spends behind bars.) But it is the Legislature that has the power to end Vermont’s use of private prisons next January. It would take very little at this point to reduce the total prison population by the 250 men currently out of state. Require alternatives for nonviolent misdemeanors, prohibit holding people for lack of approved housing, allow the release of older inmates who are low risk. And by the way, stop creating new crimes and increasing penalties every year.
If the U.S. Department of Justice can do this, surely we with our relatively tiny numbers can, too.