Our opinion: Vermont's prison road trip needs to end

News comes from Montpelier that the state, dissatisfied with living conditions experienced by its out-of-state inmates in Pennsylvania, is looking to move those inmates somewhere else.

Ideally, they'd be coming home to a corrections facility in Vermont rather than packing their bags for another bus ride.

VTDigger reported that according to a letter shared by Barry Kade, an Enosburg Falls attorney who has been outspoken in criticism of the Pennsylvania facility, the state is looking at the for-profit Tallahatchie County Correction Facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi, and the publicly owned, privately run Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, Rhode Island.

Presently, more than 260 Vermont inmates serving long-term sentences are housed at Pennsylvania's State Correctional Institute at Camp Hill, because there isn't room for them in the Green Mountain State's corrections system.

The Vermont experience at Camp Hill has not been positive. Roger Brown, 68, of Newfane, died there in October when his medical complaints were ignored until he was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic lung cancer and died days later. And VTDigger has reported that inmates housed at Camp Hill have sent letters complaining about conditions and abusive conduct by corrections staff there.

The Vermont prisoners were moved to Pennsylvania following complaints about conditions and treatment at a for-profit facility in Michigan. Before that, they were housed in for-profit prisons in Kentucky and other states.

In previous stops, one of the chief concerns voiced by prisoners and their families is that housing prisoners in faraway states made visiting difficult. If Michigan and Kentucky are too far away for family visits, that would likely rule out Mississippi and make Rhode Island a more palatable option.

But the practice of paying other states, or private companies, taxpayer dollars to house inmates out of state is troublesome on its face, and ought to be phased out. The entire notion of for-profit companies making money from this country's troubling trend of mass incarceration, especially of people of color, does not reflect Vermont's shared values. We can find better ways to spend taxpayer dollars in the pursuit of just punishments and preparing inmates for a more productive future upon their release.

Serious, violent crimes deserve prison time. But here we are, in the midst of an opiate epidemic, and one of the side effects of that scourge is that otherwise well-meaning people have found themselves on the wrong side of the law through their addiction. Treatment and restorative justice for people who have committed non-violent drug-related crimes can offer a better and more productive option, one that is far better than warehousing people in jails.

Reducing the number of inmates in Vermont prisons could make room for out-of-state inmates to come home and serve their time here. It would save money that would otherwise go into the pockets of for-profit prison companies and their shareholders.

Steve Howard is the executive director of the Vermont State Employees' Association, the union that represents state workers including corrections officers. He had this to say to VTDigger.org, and it reflects our view: "We should be bringing prisoners close to home," he said, "in facilities that are run according to our values."


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