Vermont finalizing new out-of-state prison contract

(This story was updated for the second time April 10 at 6:50 p.m.)

A Vermont high-ranking official has confirmed that the state is “very close” to finalizing a new contract to house Vermont prisoners out of state.

Secretary of Human Services Al Gobeille said Monday that Vermont has been in talks with the state of Pennsylvania. He would not provide any details about the discussions, except to say the two states were “very close” to reaching an agreement.

Vermont’s current contract with a private prison company, the GEO Group, expires in June. The new agreement would mark a departure from the current out-of-state contract because it would be with a public, not a private, entity.

Amy Worden, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, confirmed the states are working on an agreement.

“We’re engaged in discussions about the transfer of inmates, but nothing has been finalized yet,” Worden said.

Worden said the standard rate Pennsylvania charges to house inmates from other states is $72 a day.

Currently about 260 Vermont inmates are held at a private facility near Baldwin, Michigan. In December, the GEO Group notified the state that it would not extend the current two-year agreement. The Vermont inmates are the only ones in a facility that can hold up to 1,000 prisoners.

The daily rate per inmate under the current GEO Group contract is $61.80.

Several hundred Vermont inmates have been held at out-of-state prisons for decades due to limits on space in facilities within the state. At the peak, about 800 Vermont inmates were incarcerated out of state in 2008, according to Department of Corrections records.

Despite calls by some public officials to have all prisoners kept in Vermont, the cost is significantly less to house prisoners out of state.

About 1,800 prisoners are incarcerated in Vermont and out of state.

Suzi Wizowaty, of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, said news of the new contract was “disappointing.” She and others urged lawmakers earlier this year to end the out-of-state program when the current contract expires by reducing the number of people incarcerated in Vermont through several reforms.

“We had the opportunity to use the deadline as a way to actually take some real action to reduce unnecessary incarceration in Vermont,” Wizowaty said.

There are people behind bars in Vermont “who really don’t need to be,” she said. Moving prisoners between facilities is an uncomfortable process for them, she said, because of restraints used in transit and anxiety.

Wizowaty said that using a public corrections system rather than a private corporation could be of benefit because there is potentially more public oversight. However, she still has concerns.

“How the conditions will be remains to be seen,” Wizowaty said.

Elizabeth Hewitt

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