State officials and lawmakers are interested in building a new 800-bed prison in partnership with a private company. The $140 million facility would replace aging state facilities.
Opponents say a private company should not be involved in the project.
In a report on Vermont’s prisons published last month, the Department of Corrections provided information about the impact of a new prison on the state’s correctional system. The proposal is one of four options under consideration.
Lawmakers requested an analysis of the state’s correctional facilities in the capital budget adjustment last year, including new infrastructure.
The estimated $140 million construction cost for the new facility could be financed through several different mechanisms, such as bonds or a partnership with a private entity.
According to the report, both national private prison companies and local construction firms have expressed interest in a partnership.
Under this model, the facility would be built and owned by a private company and leased to the state, which would operate the prison.
The proposal described in the report would have 800 beds — almost twice as many as the prison in Newport, which is currently the largest facility in the state.
The out-of-state prison program would be almost entirely shut down, though a need for a few out-of-state maximum security beds would still exist. The state would close prisons in Windsor, Swanton and South Burlington, which have the highest per-capita inmate costs in the state.
Vermont would be able to bring in about $3 million in revenue by leasing prison beds to the U.S. Marshals Service for federal inmates and detainees.
The report also looked at building a new 100-bed unit at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield.
In an interview last week about the future of the Vermont prison system, Gov. Phil Scott said that “possibly building a new facility is on the table.”
“I believe that we’re going to have to rethink what we’re going to do in the future,” Scott said.
Scott said in considering the construction of a new facility, there are several ways to finance it.
“I think we should consider a public-private partnership of some sort,” he said.
Though Scott was not clear on the timing moving forward, he said a new facility “isn’t going to happen overnight,” and he believes the state can make the current system more efficient by closing the Windsor prison, which is part of his budget proposal.
State officials and legislators say any potential plans for a new prison are in the very early stages.
According to Human Services Secretary Al Gobeille, whose agency includes the Department of Corrections, “no options have been explored further than the facilities report.”
There is no proposal on the table for a private prison corporation to build and operate a facility in Vermont, Gobeille said. A privately run facility is a “nonstarter as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
Rep. Butch Shaw, R-Pittsford, vice chair of the House Corrections and Institutions Committee, said the panel has not yet explored the proposal.
Even in this early phase, the idea is generating opposition.
Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association, said the union members “vigorously oppose” the concept of a private company owning a prison in Vermont.
“We believe there is no role for a private prison company in Vermont,” Howard said. “It’s not consistent with Vermont’s values.”
The union has concerns that if a private prison company owned a facility, the company could jack up rental fees down the line, Howard said. The Vermont State Employees Association is also concerned that a private owner may eventually try to take over the functions of the facility.
“We don’t want to start an addiction with another private prison company,” Howard said.
He said private ownership of a prison is out of line with the “rehabilitative” focus of corrections.
“A for-profit entity, when they see opportunity for more profit, are going to continue to ask for more profit,” Howard said. “Our mission is to get people out of the system and not to come back. Their incentive is to keep the beds filled.”
Andrew MacLean, a lobbyist with MMR who represents CoreCivic, formerly the Corrections Corporation of America, said the company is aware Vermont has a potential need for new prison infrastructure in the state. Vermont once contracted with the Corrections Corporation of America to house inmates out of state.
CoreCivic is familiar with the Vermont DOC facilities report and is interested in a public-private partnership, MacLean said, though he said the proposal is in such an early phase that the company has not yet made a request for information. The company has been involved in similar partnerships in California and Oklahoma, according to a spokesperson.
However, MacLean said, CoreCivic is “absolutely not” interested in opening and running a private facility in the state.
“They would definitely not operate a facility in Vermont even if asked,” MacLean said.
Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, who chairs the Senate Institutions Committee, said she would be interested in exploring the possibility of partnering with a private company on a new prison.
The partnership model, Flory said, is “something we should definitely at least consider.”
Flory said with other considerable infrastructure needs in the state, it is unrealistic for Vermont taxpayers to shoulder the full cost of building a new prison. Vermont is still finishing reconstruction after damage from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, she said. A lab for the Agency of Natural Resources is slated to be built over the next two years.
At this point, she said, there are “too many unanswered questions to definitely say this is the way to go.”