ST. ALBANS — Despite efforts to increase use of court diversion, reparative boards and other alternatives to incarceration, Vermont’s prison population is increasing, with the state still sending 400 to 500 prisoners to facilities operated for profit by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
Rep. Suzi Wizowaty, D-Burlington, has introduced a bill to end the practice of sending prisoners out of state unless conditions in the out-of-state prison meet or exceed those of Vermont prisons.
“We want to have a criminal justice system that reduces crime,” said Wizowaty.
There are 450 Vermont prisoners at the Lee Adjustment Center in Kentucky and another at a CCA prison in Arizona. Vermont’s contract with CCA includes yearly increases in the per diem rate paid by the state and a guaranteed 95 percent occupancy rate.
Grassroots Leadership, a national social justice organization, argues that sending prisoners out of state increases recidivism by impeding rehabilitation of prisoners.
Currently, only four states house prisoners out of state: California, Hawaii, Idaho and Vermont. “Collectively states will spend hundreds of millions of dollars incarcerating prisoners out of state this year,” said Holly Kirby, author of a study for Grassroots Leadership on out-of-state prison usage.
Previous researchers have shown a connection between family visitation while a person is incarcerated and a reduction in new offenses once the prisoner is released.
Sending a prisoner out of state reduces visits and strains family connections, Kirby argued.
Danielle Rigney’s son was arrested soon after his nineteenth birthday. Three years into a six-year sentence he is being held outside his native California. While he was incarcerated in California, family and friends made the four-hour drive to visit every weekend. Since he was sent out of state, she’s been able to visit only three times. His father and grandfather haven’t been able to visit at all. Each visit costs $1,000, creating a financial hardship for the family.
Rigney said she feels her family is being replaced with a “prison family.”
“When he is released into society we are the ones who will be his support, we are the ones who will encourage him to finish college, get a job and never go back to prison. But we are losing touch, we are losing the battle,” said Rigney.
Hawaii has been sending prisoners out of state the longest among the four states. Kat Brady, of Community Alliance on Prisons in Hawaii, said a study has shown that those incarcerated outside of Hawaii were more likely to commit violent crimes after being released than prisoners incarcerated in the state.
In addition to being away from family, prisoners in CCA facilities do not have access to the kind of rehabilitative programs offered at in-state facilities, including substance abuse treatment, programs for sex offenders and those who commit domestic violence, Vermont’s high school for prisoners and job skills training such as the print shop operated at the Northwest State Correctional Facility here in St. Albans.
Gov. Peter Shumlin originally made reducing corrections costs a campaign issue, and significant investments were made in community justice centers and other alternatives following his election. However, an assessment of the number of detainees in Vermont released last month by the Council of State Government’s Justice Center indicates Vermont’s prison population has increased, with 4,375 new detainees in fiscal year 2013.
In 2011, the state set a goal of reducing the number of people sent to prison to 300 per day. In FY 2013, the average was 453 per day.
Part of the increase, 17 percent, can be accounted for by an increase in the number of people being held in Vermont prisons on federal charges.
The state is typically housing about 2,000 people per day, with roughly a quarter of those prisoners located out of state.
Asked why incarcerations are increasing despite the state’s efforts, Wizowaty pointed to uneven use of alternatives to prison by the various state’s attorneys. Some state’s attorneys have embraced the use of reparative boards, court diversion and drug courts, while others have been slow to do so, she suggested.
That disparity has lead activists to speak of “geographic justice.” A person arrested in St. Johnsbury or Bennington might receive different treatment than a person in Burlington or St. Albans arrested for the exact same crime, for example.
Changes also need to be made to parole and probation rules, said Wizowaty, who argued a single failed drug test should not be cause for sending parolees back to prison. Recovery from substance abuse is a process, she suggested.
“Drug addiction is a public health issue like alcoholism and not a crime,” said Wizowaty.
There are other concerns as well. Numerous lawsuits have been filed against CCA and the Lee Adjustment Center by Vermont prisoners over access to medical treatment and the quality of medical care. One Vermont prisoner, for example, filed suit alleging CCA had denied him a hernia operation recommended by two doctors, including one employed by CCA.
In Idaho, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has alleged a pattern of poor behavior by CCA, including chronic understaffing and CCA using threat of inmate on inmate violence as a management tool.
Lawsuits have shown CCA refused to move inmates who feared for their lives, according to Monica Hopkins of the ACLU of Idaho.
Brady said there have been similar problems for Hawaiian prisoners. Those cellmates subsequently killed two men who asked to be moved because they feared their cellmates, she said.
In one instance an Idaho prisoner had a broken nose and a physician tried to move it back in place, but didn’t attend to a broken jaw or continued bleeding, said Hopkins.
CCA makes money through chronic understaffing and inadequate health care, Hopkins asserted.
Brady alleged that CCA also charges prisoners with minor infractions just prior to parole hearings conducted via video conferencing. The prisoners then appear at the conference in shackles and are more likely to be denied parole thus remaining in the CCA prison.