Candidates consider Vermont’s future use of private prisons

In the wake of an announcement that the federal prison system will move away from using private facilities, some candidates in Vermont see potential to end its out-of-state prison program by reducing the inmate population, while others raise issues around costs.

The Justice Department announced plans in August to curb the use of private prisons to house federal inmates.

According to the memo, the federal system turned to private prisons to accommodate a dramatic increase in the number of offenders in the system between 1980 and 2013.

“Private prisons served an important role during a difficult period, but time has shown that they compare poorly to our own bureau facilities,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote in a memo dated Aug. 18.

However, the department determined federal facilities provide better correctional services, programs and resources, according to the memo. Private prisons fail to offer educational or vocational training — considered key to reducing recidivism — on par with the federal prison system, it says.

Incarceration trends in Vermont have seen a marked reverse in recent years also. In 2011, there were 2,103 inmates in Vermont. Projections by the Council of State Governments estimated that Vermont’s prison population would be 2,619 by 2015.

Instead, the population has decreased. As of Sept. 1, Vermont’s prison population was 1,798. Outgoing Gov. Peter Shumlin has attributed that reversal to criminal justice reforms.

Phil Scott
Phil Scott. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

Still, the population exceeds the capacity of Vermont’s seven correctional facilities, and the state turns to private companies to accommodate the overflow.

Northlake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan, held 251 inmates. The facility is owned by the GEO Group, which Vermont has contracted with since July 2015. Vermont previously worked with Corrections Corp. of America, which housed inmates in Kentucky and Arizona.

According to the Corrections Department, the cost of housing an inmate out of state is about $25,000 a year. Incarcerating someone in Vermont runs about $62,000 annually.

For Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, the costs associated with bringing out-of-state prisoners back to Vermont are a major concern.

“In a perfect world, I believe that we should try to get all those who are incarcerated back in the state,” Scott said. “The reality is it’s a lot less costly to have some out of state.”

Scott said that for him, there is a question of budget priorities.

“If I have to choose between trying to give a break to senior citizens, or give a break to those who serve in the military, or single moms struggling to get by, I probably will choose those before trying to move out-of-state prisoners in state,” Scott said.

He noted that Vermont’s prison population has been on the decline in recent years and said he would like to continue the trend of reducing the number of prisoners housed elsewhere.

“I’d like to find ways that we can get treatment for those that need it,” Scott said.

According to campaign finance disclosure forms, Scott accepted a $2,000 donation from the GEO Group in March. Scott campaign spokesperson Brittney Wilson said in a statement that the donation does not influence his approach to private prisons.

Wilson said the cost of the state correctional system falls disproportionately to state taxpayers and that Scott would ask his administration to “conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis,” taking the Justice Department’s decision into account, before changing the use of private prison contracts.

Sue Minter
Sue Minter. File photo by Kelsey Neubauer/VTDigger

In a statement, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sue Minter reacted to the federal decision to move away from private prisons.

“The Justice Department report confirms what we know — conditions and safety are not up to the highest standards in out-of-state jails. Inmates lack easy access to family and attorneys, and successful re-entry after prison is more difficult,” Minter said.

She said that if elected, she would “explore phasing out” Vermont’s use of private prisons. She would bring together a team of stakeholders from the criminal justice system with the goal of lowering the recidivism rate, she said. She’d also look to reduce the number of nonviolent offenders who are incarcerated.

“This is not just a moral imperative, but a financial one as well,” Minter said.

Private prison companies have put money behind Democratic candidates also. According to campaign finance filings on the secretary of state’s website, Corrections Corp. of America made a $500 contribution to the Vermont Democratic House Campaign PAC in January 2015.

TJ Donovan
TJ Donovan. File photo by Jasper Craven/VTDigger

Vermont Democratic Party spokesperson Christina Amestoy said that because the donation was to the House PAC, it was not within the party’s fundraising efforts. She pointed to language in the party’s 2014 platform that opposes using for-profit prisons.

Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan, who is running for attorney general as a Democrat, has long supported ending the out-of-state prison program.

“At the end of the day, this is a core responsibility of government,” Donovan said. “If we’re going to remove a citizen from our community, it is our obligation to incarcerate them and prepare them for re-entry.”

Most inmates are going to be released at some point, he said. He argues that it is in the state’s public safety interest and financial interest to focus on serving and rehabilitating offenders.

Donovan said he believes there is potential for Vermont to stop using private out-of-state prisons by reducing the state’s incarcerated population.

He said he would support auditing the prison population to get a better understanding of who is incarcerated and why they are being held, and looking at data including age, reason for incarceration, mental illness and other factors.

With better understanding of the population, Donovan said, there could be opportunities to evaluate how to best serve those people. He said his approach is not “saying no to incarceration,” but finding ways to use alternative justice approaches when appropriate.

Deborah Bucknam
Deborah Bucknam. Provided photo

“These are Vermonters, and it’s the state of Vermont’s obligation to be responsible for them and not to contract it out,” Donovan said.

Republican attorney general candidate Deb Bucknam said she would further explore the use of private prison contracts once in office. In her legal practice, she has encountered family members of prisoners held out of state.

“I’ve had clients whose family members are incarcerated out of state,” Bucknam said. “It is hard on them.”

However, she, like Scott, raised the question of the budget.

“I also know that Vermonters are being burdened with a lot of taxation and fees and so forth, and that’s hard on them,” Bucknam said.

Bucknam said the financial impact would factor into her consideration of for-profit prisons.

“Once I become attorney general, I will analyze it and see what the cost and what the benefits are if any,” Bucknam said.

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Elizabeth Hewitt

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  • Dave Bellini

    In order to return all out-of-state inmates Vermont would need to build a maximum security prison or at the very least build a real maximum security wing on an existing prison. Vermont prisons are not designed for high risk, violent, inmates Vermont, with tiny population and geography, built numerous micro-prisons after Windsor Prison closed. Expensive. Moving less violent inmates out to the street for programming has worked about as well as “community mental health.” Current VT prisons are understaffed says the legislature’s own report. Turnover remains high; officers are still hired as temps without benefits. The merry-go-round of private for profit medical/mental health companies hasn’t been a great success. New “programs” are purchased, off-the-shelf, products. The legislature only acts when forced by crises or extreme political pressure. “An object at rest will remain at rest…”

  • Bradley Stockwell

    The high level of vague, tentative, and wishy-washy statements by elected official in this article is offensive. They will look into the matter, analyze it, look to find ways to address the current system, conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis, explore phasing things out, bring together a team of stakeholders, and they all believe there is potential for Vermont to stop using private out-of-state prisons.

    Where’s the part where someone stands up on their hind legs and says, “Here’s the problem and here’s what I’d do to fix it”?

    Bland, cautious statements like these can be summed up thusly, “I’ll say this: it’s complicated and I don’t want to put my image on the line, so I’ll respond with the same canned, vapid, but concerned-sounding responses I toss out on every issue you might bring up. May I count on your vote?”

  • Bob Hooper

    In the current grand scheme, persons who are long term inmates are housed out of state until it is time for them to decide to opt into programs that will reduce their potential for reentry into the system. Frankly to prioritize housing a person who has over ten years to serve IN state at significantly higher cost, while other programs that have a direct and measurable effect on someone in need, a bridge that is failing, or cleaning up the lake……not a hard decision to make. Vermont clearly has to have the option to put programming in place at some level for out of state inmates, but at what cost?? It is indeed hard for the family of an inmate who is out of state, but having committed the crime society demands that punishment be administered. It is also hard for the Veteran who sleeps on the street and has no healthcare available…..

    Choices….the dollar can only go so far….rehabilitation is important… but just one thing on the list of many.

  • scott jennings

    Of course, nothing mentioned about the victims who have suffered by the actions of those lawfully convicted and deserve to do their time either in Vermont or elsewhere. It takes a lot to get jail time in Vermont and they deserve it. In our Orwellian dystopian times, the criminals are now the victims! Out of state private prisons are humane, safe, and secure. Like Phil said, our priorities should be elsewhere to those more deserving.

  • All candidates should be applauded for their desire to bring all out of state prisoners out of state back home. Dave Bellini’s comments are particularly instructive. It’s a bigger problem that just bringing prisoners back to Vermont. The Vermont prisons have become Vermont’s biggest psychiatric hospital and many inmates do not get access to adequate care. Many are incarcerated for charges that would be better handled by concepts encouraged by those who advocate for criminal justice reform. Lt. Gov. Scott’s concern about the budget are real and cannot be ignored as Vermont faces colossal problems on many fronts. Let’s face it, we have a crisis of affordability, folks are screaming for property tax relief and we have a state budget that has grown every year under Gov. Shumlin. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott understands that we need to prioritize our many problems with fiscal responsibility a key priority.

  • There are many points to consider, not the least of which is what we as a society intend to accomplish by segregating and locking up those among us who are convicted of violating the law (and how well we’re doing on that). But what jumped out to me is the statement that it costs almost 1 1/2 times as much to house an inmate in state compared to sending them out of state. And the facilities to which they are sent are for-profit. One wonders why and hopes that Digger will explore this issue further. Thanks.

    • Doug Hoffer

      The price comparisons are not apples to apples. The private prisons don’t provide the services we do instate so the folks sent away are cheaper to house (along with economies of scale from larger facilities and cheap labor costs).

    • Dave Bellini

      @Daniel – Private prisons cost “less” because they get to pick and choose what kind of inmates they take. They do not take EXPENSIVE inmates. Inmates with serious medical/mental illness get to stay in VT. This distorts the cost on paper. That leaves VT with all the EXPENSIVE inmates artificially driving up the cost per head. If VT shipped out all the EXPENSIVE inmates and kept only healthy inmates the numbers would look quite different.

  • It’s time to end the use of these prisons. VT prisoners are coming home from these hellholes as confirmed neo-nazis and as far worse criminals than before.

    Phil if you are reading this – it is not a bargain to turn VT criminals into domestic terrorists. You are not thinking far enough ahead.

  • Bring back county jails to house detainees, and you will have enough State beds to bring all prisoners back to Vermont. Better yet, make bail costs more reasonable, and you might even get away without county or local jail facilities.

  • David Matthews

    “At the end of the day, this is a core responsibility of government,” Donovan said. “If we’re going to remove a citizen from our community, it is our obligation to incarcerate them and prepare them for re-entry.”

    That comment supersedes any other argument on reasons for and against. At bare minimum, the state MUST demand to these “private contractors” that we will TELL them who will be incarcerated in our state facilities ( meaning Vermont citizens first). I believe that is not the case now. There should be no wiggle room for either candidate in the governor’s race on that point.

  • Kim Hebert

    Candidates who say they know best when it comes to housing inmates is like Hillary saying she never lied to the American people about her e-mails. $25,000.00 per year vs. $62,000.00 a year is all you need to know the rest is smoke.

  • Here is a simple question for “businessman” Phil Scott. Which is better, financially. Plan A sends a young man to a really bad out of state private prison for 4 years at 25,000. He is released as a hardened criminal, causes $100k harm to Vermonters (through crime and police/court costs), is re-arrested, to serve another 12 years at $25,000 a year. We’re up to $500,000 so far and no end in sight. Or Plan B, send him to a good prison at $62,000 a year, he is comes out as a decent human, gets a job, end of story, at a cost of $264,000. A private prison very greatly prefers Plan A, because it will make them rich. Ethics is very important too, but just the dollars and cents show that private prisons are a way to rob us of our taxes to make corporations and CEOs wealthy.

    • I don’t see how dripping sarcasm is productive on an issue so important to many Vermonters when we likely agree on more than we disagree.

  • William Hays

    I posted a comment ~7 hours ago. Did I step on toes? In brief, my calculations were:
    $62,000/per annum to incarcerate prisoners in Vermont.
    $25,000 to incarcerate them out-of-state.
    Savings, per prisoner to VT taxpayers: $37,000 a year/inmate.
    With 1,798 inmates, shipping them ‘away’ would save VT $66,526,000 annually.
    I doubt many taxpayers would object to those savings.

  • Mary V. Tegel

    After reading this story and the readers’ comments about private out-of-state prisons contrasted with VT government in state prisons, I favor in-state.) The discussion, particularly among law-makers, would-be law-makers, and those who apply policy & law should include the inmates. Of what crimes have they been convicted, and what are the full-accounting costs for all? What are their demographics? How many are repeat offenders? How many ended up in the criminal justice system as young people? And, how do they fare in & after prison?
    What is the purpose of prison — punishment, rehabilitation (whatever that means)? I think it’s important to consider all of the costs, including what some may regard as intangible or outside the scope, to everyone including the prisoners.
    The humane approach ought to be to consider questions of the purpose of prisons, the morality of our justice system, and — mostly: what are those full costs compared with what desired outcomes for all.

  • There is something that feels morally wrong that we have a situation where we have “prisons for profit.” Sending Vt. prisoners out of state where they are subjected poor conditions including staffing is a recipe for recidivism. It is also a recipe for turning non-violet offenders into much more dangerous ones. Moreover a maximum security prison is only as good as those running the prison as the breakout at Dannemora shows. There must be a better and smarter way to deal most non-violent offenders.

  • Steve Merrill

    As long as we are stuck with this “war on drugs” (on the poor) THIS is what we’ll get, along with violation of privacy & the 4th Amendment as the poor become commodities jailed @ $50,000/yr. and “big treatment” & “commercial justice” send poor people of color off to the “new global plantation”. Imagine if our ancestors were stopped, frisked, and “search dogs” were used to search THEIR carriages for “contraband”? Dogs? Really? An ANIMAL can “testify” in a courtroom? Ethan Allen & our Founding Fathers are spinning in their graves as “legal” drug addicts (alcohol consuming cops & lawyers) make a living jailing “illegal” drug addicts (substances the rest consume) and “pirate prisons” become the new normal, another “leech industry”. SM, N.Troy.

    • Rich Lachapelle

      No one is doing jail time in Vermont for being an addict, nor should they be. However, addiction should NEVER be an excuse for committing burglary, armed robbery, pursesnatchings, car break-ins, human trafficking etc to finance one’s drug habit. People who prey upon others, particularly using force or violence should be given the concrete and steel enclosure treatment every time, including for a first offense. A junkie who detoxes in a cold jail cell with nothing but a bucket and a blanket will have a long lasting memory of an experience they wont ever want to repeat.

  • Cecile Johnston

    Perhaps some close investigation of the private contractors providing services such as health care to in-state prisoners is in order as well.

  • Rich Lachapelle

    This issue is not about the numbers of inmates that is acceptable to have under lock and key. Those who show a propensity to harm others, particularly using violence should be locked up. This is not about what “services” can be provided or easing access for family visits. Despite being called “correctional” facilities, the service they really perform is to segregate bad people, and that should be their primary purpose. Rehabilitation, education and self-esteem boosting are really up to the individual offender (oops, I mean “justice involved” person). That being said, this is a job that should be solely carried out by government and should never have been allowed to be taken on by the private sector in the first place. Vermont needs to bite the bullet and build whatever facilities are needed to incarcerate those who misbehave. If school enrollment is up, we add on or build a bigger school. We do not have a fixed capacity and send the overflow out of state for budget reasons.

  • Katharine Hikel

    All of us old boomers worrying that this could be the next development in ‘assisted living’ lol

  • It’s a simple question. GEO Group in Baldwin, and everywhere, tries to do everything on the cheap. If that involves bribing politicians, that’s just a cost of business.

    More importantly is cost externalization. California’s Department of Corrections had a study done in-house, by Norm Holt and Don Miller. They looked at a rural prison far from urban centers where most of the inmates originate. They analyzed recidivism outcomes from inmates who got visits during the last year of incarceration from zero, one, two or three or more people. That could mean every weekend, or just a visit at Christmas. Those who got visits from no family or support system individuals recidivated at SIX TIMES THE RATE of those who had visits from those who had three or more visitors. It wouldn’t take Corrections but a minute to do the calculations. If there are 200 inmates in Baldwin, and nearly zero get visits, that means that when they recidivate, that will cost FAR more than if they stayed in VT.