Courts & Corrections

Vermont considers building new $140M prison

Gov. Phil Scott says the state should consider a public-private partnership for a new prison. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
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.

Southeast State Correctional Facility
Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor. Department of Corrections photo
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
VSEA Executive Director Steve Howard. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
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.”


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Elizabeth Hewitt

Recent Stories

  • Dave Silberman

    Over 9% of the General Fund goes to Corrections, and there are over 200 people in prison today who are eligible for immediate release but for the fact that they do not have appropriate housing outside of prison. So we’re spending something like $1 million per month housing these people.

    The solution is not to build more prisons, but to hold fewer prisoners. Take money away from the Corrections budget and invest it in housing, education, workforce development, drug treatment. Revisit our criminal statutes and reduce the length of sentences for most crimes — and eliminate prison sentences altogether for low-level non-violent drug offenses. That not only is more humane, but it will save taxpayers a lot of money!

    Criminal justice reform: it’s not just for liberals.

    • Dave Bellini

      Dave, lack of “appropriate housing” doesn’t mean what it sounds like. This is a phrase often used for inmates that burned all their bridges. Some inmates flat out refuse to obey laws or rules. Many have been thrown out of all the programs and halfway houses. Also, some child molesters are unwelcome and for good reason. “Lack of appropriate housing” is a euphemism.

    • DougHoffer

      It’s not only Corrections. We just released a report that found we’re spending $574 million this year on public safety. Perhaps there should be a more comprehensive review of the system before making this decision. The report is here.
      http://auditor.vermont.gov/sites/auditor/files/documents/State%20%26%20Local%20Spending%20on%20Public%20Safety%20Report.pdf

      • Dave Silberman

        thanks, Doug, I look forward to reading that report!

    • Pat McGarry

      Dave- and it is much more difficult for inmates lacking housing to find housing from Michigan, etc.

  • Rich Lachapelle

    “Vermont values” aside, privatization of the corrections/incarceration system has never been a good idea, ethically. Like the military and border enforcement, it should always remain under the purview of government and therefore subject to Constitutional oversight. The cost should not be a significant factor in deciding on how MANY to incarcerate since it is the very foundation of any civilized society to provide a credible system of sanctions for those who prey upon others. We decide what level of serious crime we as a society are willing to put up with and those who cross that threshold get locked up. We finance this vital government service like we finance our roads and our schools. When our schools get overcrowded we add on or build a new one, we don’t send some students home to ease the burden.

  • John farrell

    BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME.

  • Craig Gilborn

    Shipping convicted Vermonters to distant prisons, away from family, is “cruel and unusual punishment” and an evasion of responsibility by state government. And profit-making privately owned and operated prisons too closely resemble the chattel of colonial trading in bodies and cheap labor for personal profit or gain. If Vermont cannot afford to govern sustainably, it should consider an alliance with other New England states. The business of justice and rehabilitation is a government responsibility; it should not be a risk-free, money-making opportunity for Wall Street hedge fund speculators.

  • John McClaughry

    If I were tasked with this problem, I’d see about leasing one or two of the eight cellblocks at the Thomson federal prison in Illinois. Thomson has 1,900 high-security beds, but sat empty from its completion in 2001 to 2006, when the 200 bed minimum security section was put into use. The 1,900 beds are still empty. Vermont could operate its leased cell blocks as a Vermont prison, with Skype interviews for relatives.

  • Bruce Wilkie

    We need drug rehab centers and psychiatric care facilities more than we need a new prison.

  • E.V. Debs

    Why would the state enter into a “partnership” in which that for-profit entity operates in the corporate version of domestic violence?

    CCA builds lousy prisons. They don’t care if they’re secure or not, just as long as the bills get paid. When Vermont inmates rioted at the Beattyville, KY, Lee Adjustment Center, after frequent escapes, it took all the state’s resources available to suppress the riot. Inmates rolled up the fences like venetian blinds, and used watch tower supports as battering rams. The Commissioner of Corrections was an ex-CCA Vice President. He only fined them $10,000 for what probably cost 10-20 times that in law enforcement and emergency equipment expenses. CCA doesn’t pay its employees living wages (at LAC, it was $7.65 an hour), treats inmates like commodities, and has a long history of ripping off the taxpayer through short staffing with fabricated coverups, massive overcharging and endless security failures, such as escapes and hugely destructive riots. The LAC riot was their fourth in four months. They are not approaching the governor because they’re altruistic…it’s simply another opportunity to steal. They have regularly had state and nationwide class action suits brought by employees who have been short changed. Anyone who would like to frighten their children at Halloween could read the stories about their “Gladiator School” in Idaho.

    No one should want to let this Trojan Horse through the gates to Vermont’s treasury.

  • Bradleigh Stockwell

    With the horrifying reality behind prisons-for-profit available to anyone able to spare one minute online, it’s shocking to hear Vermont is considering building a new prison at the urging of the industry. It’s indicative of how awful the industry is that they have “pulled a Comcast” by changing their name from Corrections Corporation of America to CoreCivic.

    “CoreCivic,” according to this well-written article, “is aware Vermont has a potential need for new prison infrastructure in the state.” Translation: “Those rubes in Vermont are so scared about money they’ll grab at anything you put in from of them that smells like it’s an investment.”

    They aren’t even a successful company. In the last dozen years, at
    least eight prisons they ran were either closed permanently or else
    contracts with were CCA cancelled after revelations about how they were being
    run.

    I’m relieved to read the majority of comments on this article are lucid, intelligent, and anti-CCA,C-Core, or whatever that repulsive company is calling itself this week.