Courts & Corrections

Inmates, activists anxious about move to Pennsylvania prisons

Ahead of a new contract to house Vermont prisoners with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, inmates, family members in Vermont and advocates in both states are raising concerns.

Currently, around 270 Vermont prisoners are held in a facility run by the GEO Group in Michigan. But a new agreement with Pennsylvania means the out-of-state population will be moved to two facilities there before June 14, according to a Vermont Department of Corrections official.

Suzi Wizowaty
Suzi Wizowaty of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
The change in the contract has raised concerns among some inmates and family members about how conditions may change for Vermonters incarcerated in Pennsylvania. There are fears about what the new contract will mean for inmates’ personal property, their access to a system to file complaints, and more.

“We’ll lose our equal protections we currently share with in-state inmates,” one prisoner wrote in an email, sent via the communication system JPAY.

Another Vermont inmate in Michigan is seeking to file a formal complaint challenging the move.

Inmates are concerned that rules in Pennsylvania will bar them from bringing items they acquired in Michigan, such as television sets that don’t meet the required specifications, according to Suzi Wizowaty, of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform.

Other worries have to do with cultural differences between the Vermont and Pennsylvania prison systems. For instance, smoking is allowed in the Pennsylvania prisons — in contrast with Vermont. Inmates will not have access to a video chat system to visit with family remotely, which is currently available to them in the GEO Group facility.

Wizowaty said she and others have fears about inmates’ physical safety in the new prison system.

According to Mike Touchette, director of facilities operations for the Vermont DOC, the two departments are still discussing some details about the move, including concerns over property.

Vermont inmates will be held in units separate from the general Pennsylvania population. Exceptions would occur for inmates who need to be in a mental health unit or held at a different level of security. Those Vermonters would be with Pennsylvania inmates in a specialized unit.

Touchette said he is confident Vermont officials will have sufficient oversight of conditions for Vermont inmates in the Pennsylvania prisons.

“We have an ongoing and open dialogue with Pennsylvania officials,” he said.

Touchette said under the agreement, Vermont inmates will need to handle grievances through the Pennsylvania system. Under previous arrangements with the privately run GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America, inmates continued to use Vermont’s system for grievances.

However, he said, they will continue to have access to Vermont’s appeals process and prisoners’ rights office.

Defender General Matt Valerio. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
Vermont Defender General Matt Valerio, who oversees the prisoners’ rights office, said the questions about property and more have come up before previous changes in out-of-state contracts.

“I think they’re valid concerns,” Valerio said. “They’re the kind of concerns we have every time there’s a move.”

His office will continue to work with the out-of-state population and to make visits quarterly, he said.

Valerio’s biggest concern is a contract requirement that Vermont commit to paying for a minimum of 250 beds. Though Vermont officials have said they will not send Vermont inmates out of state just to fill the minimum required beds, Valerio expects the new contract will halt the recent downward trend in Vermont’s out-of-state prisoner numbers.

“The likelihood that we’re going to be bringing anybody home during the term of this contract I think is essentially zero,” he said.

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, prisoners’ rights advocates have concerns that the new arrangement with Vermont may lead to overcrowding.

Angus Love, of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, said that although there have been recent closures of Pennsylvania correctional facilities amid a decreasing population, worries remain that the population could increase again.

He is particularly concerned about a bill currently in the Pennsylvania Legislature that would re-establish mandatory minimum sentences.

“If it passes, we won’t have any excess capacity,” he argued.

Amy Worden, of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, said the state is confident there is capacity to handle the inmates from Vermont.

“The fact is there are more than 5,000 available beds across 26 facilities at the present time,” Worden said in an email Tuesday. “The PA DOC can handle the additional inmates from Vermont without compromising safety and security.”

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