Remote Control: Keep Prisoners in State

Bring inmates here form Maine and Vermont?

Gov. John Lynch has floated the idea of a northern New England prison with room for inmates from Maine and Vermont. Maine lawmakers voted in 2011 to kill a bill to let a private prison construct a prison there. This editorial from the Valley News suggests Vermont would be a reluctant partner as well in such a venture. Its prisoners out of state are rioting.

CCJR Staff

Remote Control: Keep Prisoners in State
Published 7/24/2012 in the Valley News, Lebanon, NH  

Out of sight, out of mind is a saying the force of which nearly all of us have experienced personally at one time or another. And what's true in private life also holds for public policy, which is why housing inmates at out-of-state prisons strikes us as misguided.

Vermont recently allowed to expire a contract to house 100 inmates at the Franklin County Jail and House of Detention in western Massachusetts after what state Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito described as “considerable discussion publicly about the inadequacies of the facility.”

This is a bit of an understatement. A year ago this month, Vermont inmates rioted following a sit-in to protest conditions at the Franklin County jail, including limited outdoor recreation space and a ban on physical contact during family visits, something inmate activists say is allowed in Vermont prisons. The Associated Press reports that windows were broken, furniture and electronic equipment were destroyed and a sprinkler set off, leaving a foot of water on the floor. No injuries were reported, but 12 Vermont inmates were charged in connection with the disturbance.

The end of that contract leaves 480 Vermont offenders still incarcerated out of state, in two private prisons run by Corrections Corporation of America in Arizona and Kentucky. This is down from more than 700 inmates who were imprisoned out of state a few years ago, so the numbers at least are trending in the right direction.

Vermont first began sending inmates out of state years ago because of crowding in its own prisons caused by explosive growth in the number of people incarcerated during the 1990s. The state has made efforts since then to reduce the number of people serving time, and in the 2011 fiscal year, the incarcerated population dropped 5.2 percent over the prior year. The total prison population is now about 2,100.

The Shumlin administration has made it a priority to reduce the number of non-violent offenders who are locked up, which is both admirable and smart as long as the financial and programming resources necessary to make it successful are provided. We hope that as this trend continues, Vermont will also make it a priority to bring its inmates home and house them in state facilities or in community programs. There are lots of reasons why this makes sense. One is that even as inmates pay their debt to society, society owes it to them to ensure their safety in humane surroundings that meet the standards of supervision, treatment and programming that Vermont sets for itself. Prisoners, after all, are not some kind of toxic waste to be shipped out for storage elsewhere; they are flawed human beings who have made mistakes and are obliged to make amends, but who by and large have the potential to live useful lives.

A second reason is that family support is an important component of successful rehabilitation and re-entry into society. Housing Vermont inmates in remote places like Arizona and Kentucky certainly makes visiting them at the least burdensome and expensive, if not impossible for some families.

And finally, running prisons is an essential government function that ought not to be contracted out to the lowest bidder, whose priorities may be far different from those of government. There's a moral responsibility at work here, which is that if society is going to deprive someone of his or her freedom, no matter how much that action is justified, then it must keep close watch over them, not send them away to where they are not only out of sight, but also out of mind.