Officials at a Mississippi prison where about 260 Vermont inmates are being held have reversed course on a mail handling policy after concerns were raised that it would have a chilling effect on those who may want to report misconduct or other problems with conditions.
“The warden down there agreed to halt the practice of viewing outgoing mail of Vermont inmates,” Alan Cormier, Vermont Department of Corrections facilities director, said Thursday.
Vermont prisoners held out-of-state at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi, were notified last week by staff that non-legal outgoing mail would be subject to search. Prisoners were told to leave envelopes unsealed to ease the searches.
Kirk Wool, a Vermont inmate at the Mississippi facility, said in an interview with VTDigger earlier this week that policy would leave prisoners at the facility fearful of writing home to family and friends about concerns they may have at the out-of-state prison.
Wool also said the policy at the facility operated by the private prison company CoreCivic ran counter to Vermont DOC procedures for handling the mail of inmates housed in-state.
Cormier, of the Vermont DOC, said earlier this week state officials would be seeking to address the matter with CoreCivic officials.
Cormier said Thursday that state corrections officials have reached out, and provided CoreCivic with the Vermont mail policy. Officials there agreed to a change and all outgoing general mail will no longer be subject search, Cormier said.
Vermont began sending prisoners it did not have capacity to hold in-state to the Mississippi facility after agreeing to a contract with CoreCivic in 2018. That contract did not specifically address the policy for searching mail.
Since that time, according to Wool, CoreCivic tried to implement a policy in the past of searching all of inmates’ outgoing mail, but dropped it after a Vermont prisoner complained about it.
VTDigger is underwritten by:
However, following a recent change in leadership at the privately run facility, Vermont inmates there were notified by memos posted in the housing units that all outgoing mail would be subject to search.
After state officials contacted CoreCivic this week, the outgoing mail will be treated similarly to that of Vermont inmates at an in-state facility, according to Cormier.
The Vermont policy states, “With the exception of inmate-to-inmate mail, outgoing mail will not be inspected or read except if the Superintendent or designee has reasonable suspicion to believe that the mail may pose a threat to the safety and security of the facility, its staff, inmates, or the public, or that the mail may contain contraband.”
Incoming mail at both the CoreCivic facility and Vermont prisons are subject to search.
Barry Kade, a Montgomery attorney who advocates for prisoners, said Thursday he’s glad to see that DOC took action.
“It clearly came from instruction from Vermont so that’s a very good sign,” he said of the mail handling policy reversal at the Mississippi prison. “I’m hoping that they did it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Rafael Vergara, the warden at the Mississippi facility, could not immediately be reached Thursday for comment.
Stay on top of all of Vermont's criminal justice news. Sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on courts and crime.