Courts & Corrections

Out-of-state prison deal may have minimum bed requirement

A new contract to house prisoners out of state may require Vermont to commit to paying for a minimum number of beds.

The requirement for a new agreement could be 250 inmates, according to officials.

The potential minimum has lawmakers and advocates concerned that inmates would be sent out of state to meet the quota, even if space were available in Vermont prisons.

The state is in advanced negotiations with the state of Pennsylvania to send Vermont inmates to a prison there, according to officials and legislators. However, a Vermont Department of Corrections official said the state is still considering options with several other potential providers — all of which also would require a minimum number of beds.

Dick Sears
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington. File photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger
As of this week, there are 270 Vermont inmates held at a private facility in Michigan.

For decades, Vermont has contracted with companies or states to hold inmates at prisons elsewhere because of limited capacity within in-state facilities. However, there has been a push to decrease the out-of-state program in recent years, and inmate numbers dipped to 240 last year.

Vermont is seeking a new contract because the current contractor, the GEO Group, said last year it won’t extend the contract that is in place now. The agreement expires in June.

The effort to find a new arrangement has been challenged by a high demand for space in secure facilities. An anticipated increase in demand for prison beds due to changes in federal immigration policies under the Trump administration has driven up costs.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said Wednesday that he does not believe the state has had many choices given the national market pressures.

“It’s a seller’s market,” said Sears, chair of the Judiciary Committee.

Sears said the state remains committed to trying to reduce the number of inmates held elsewhere as much as possible.

According to Sears, Corrections Commissioner Lisa Menard assured him and Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, chair of the Appropriations Committee, that the state won’t send inmates to a prison outside Vermont if there are in-state spaces available.

“They will not put people out of state if they don’t need to go out of state,” Sears said.

According to Department of Corrections Facilities Operations Director Mike Touchette, all potential contractors the state has sent inquiries to have had a minimum requirement.

“Vermont’s need for supplemental housing, in comparison to the national demand, is extraordinarily low,” Touchette said in an email Wednesday.

Vermont will continue to try to reduce the number of inmates who are held in out-of-state prisons, he said.

“With a floor, we would pay the amount regardless if the beds were fully utilized, or not. If we find ourselves with an opportunity to bring inmates home to Vermont, but have a population below the floor with the supplemental facility, we will do so,” Touchette said.

Touchette said the state is still considering options from several potential entities to accommodate Vermont inmates outside of DOC facilities. He would not comment on when an agreement may be finalized.

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections declined to comment on the potential minimum bed requirement.

Suzi Wizowaty
Suzi Wizowaty of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
Suzi Wizowaty, of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, said committing to sending a minimum number of Vermont inmates out of state is “just bad public policy.”

“The writing on the wall here is that we send more people out of state and we close an in-state prison,” Wizowaty said.

Wizowaty said incarcerating people out of state is problematic for several reasons, including because it distances them from community and family — factors that can be very important for reducing recidivism.

Wizowaty advocates for lawmakers to reform the criminal justice system to reduce the number of people incarcerated, which would allow the state to cease using out-of-state prisons.

“I wish I knew what it would take for the Legislature to understand that what we’re doing here is not in our interest, is not helping public safety,” Wizowaty said.

The minimum bed requirement is also opposed by the Vermont State Employees’ Association, according to the union’s executive director, Steve Howard.

“Our basic public policy stance is that the criminal justice system is served more effectively when Vermonters are running the corrections system in Vermont,” Howard said.

The union has concerns the minimum could lead the state to close an in-state prison and utilize more out-of-state beds instead.

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  • Last figures available indicate that DoC houses 300+/- inmates for lack of bail, many of which are on non-violent charges with relatively low bail amounts. However, for many persons charged with crime (of which 85%) are deemed too poor to hire their own attorney, $500 cash bail is the same as $50K. They simply don’t have it. There is talk of bail reform and a bill pending to implement same presently being considered by the Legislature. If these changes are made, the number of secure beds required by DoC will be significantly reduced.

    In addition, recent reports indicate that DoC houses 300+/- inmates who are past their minimum release dates but are still being incarcerated for lack of DoC “approved” housing. If we invested in more available housing for inmates returning to our communities, as most all do, we would have no need to export our people to for-profit out-of-state prisons.

    Placement far away makes maintaining family ties, and successful reintegration much more difficult that housing inmates in regional facilities as they were initially called when corrections was designed to provide community based rehabilitation. One of the very statutory purposes of corrections is “to render treatment to offenders with the goal of achieving their successful return and participation as citizens of the state and community, to foster their human dignity and to preserve the human resources of the community.” 28 VSA § 1(a).

    Sadly, Vermont now spends just about twice the money locking predominantly young men up as it does on supporting that same population pursuing post secondary education. Is this a rational approach to building our future labor force? I think not!

    • Rich Lachapelle

      Comparing the expenditures of public money spent on incarceration vs post secondary education is a ridiculous apples and oranges metric. If a five-time DUI offender plowed into your child in a crosswalk, would you want to see them sent to college as a result?
      You also forgot what many folks consider to be the PRIMARY statutory purpose of “corrections”: to insure that some offenders, particularly violent ones, are rendered incapable of harming innocent citizens. For some offenders, the only way to insure this is to lock them up in a concrete and steel enclosure. The “corrections” part is up to them and not a responsibility of government as it cannot reasonably be guaranteed.
      The bail argument is reasonable, but the innocent, tax-paying crime victims of Vermont have a right to know that we have a system that attempts to insure that someone will show up for their trial. Judges already make these decisions based on ability to pay. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. As a whole, the Vermont criminal justice system is a joke, with far too many repeat violent offenders running free and preying upon the innocent. The cost of keeping dangerous people locked up is money well spent on public safety, just like funding fire departments, rescue squads and painting the stripes on the roads.

      • Pat McGarry

        Richard-

        A reminder- criminal defendants are not guilty. Perhaps most get convicted, but to say of all of them “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” is worse than stupid.

  • sandybettis

    If we just provided housing for all the prisoners not able to leave once their sentence is up and let up on all the crazy and unnatural rules imposed on prisoners once they are out (that would avoid re-entry), we would not need to send our prisoners to out of state, for profit, privatized prisons that only operate at the detriment of all of us.

  • sandybettis

    I worked in the DOC accounting office in the late 90’s and early 2000’s – at that time, they had a program for renting apartments and keeping them on hand for when a prisoner got out of jail and needed a place to live. When they got rid of that program, the big expensive out of state contracts started.