The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.

hy is Vermont planning to spend $7 million to send 200 prisoners to an out-of-state, for-profit prison known for slave labor exploitation, even though Vermont’s in-state prison population has decreased by more than 450 prisoners in the past decade? Even with the decrease, Vermont’s incarceration rate remains four times higher than it was in the 1970s.

According to Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC) figures (pages 16, 28) in its 2018 budget request (undated) to the legislature:

  • Vermont had 2,187 prisoners in 2007

  • Vermont DOC projected a 26% prisoner increase by 2018

  • Vermont expected to have 2,681 prisoners by 2018

  • Vermont’s prison population declined by 18% by 2018

  • Vermont’s 2018 prison population is 1,722 prisoners

  • Vermont has 878 fewer prisoners now than expected in 2007

  • Vermont has 465 fewer prisoners than it had in 2007

  • Vermont DOC budget in 2009 was $135 million

  • Vermont DOC budget for 2017 was $155 million

Having presented these figures as facts, the Vermont DOC reaches an unexplained, apparently inconsistent conclusion, here in its entirety:

Due to the current size of the sentenced and detainee populations in Vermont, additional space to house inmates is provided by correctional facilities outside the state. The Out of State population (at this time, 265+/- inmates) is currently managed by the Out of State Unit. This office coordinates the classification, casework, and movement of appropriate offenders between Vermont DOC facilities and the out of state facility located currently in Michigan.

Since the budget summary was written, Vermont has removed all its prisoners from the Michigan facility. In its place, Vermont used the Pennsylvania state facility at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, where four Vermonters have died, one from untreated cancer with no palliative care. Now Vermont negotiators have reportedly agreed to a contract to send Vermont prisoners to Tallahatchie, Mississippi, to be housed in a 2,672-bed facility run by CoreCivic, Inc. (formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America), the largest private prison company in the US (2018 second-quarter profit $42 million on revenue of $449 million).

The Vermont contract is currently secret. The ACLU opposes the contract sight unseen.  State and corporate officials have refused to discuss it in any detail, but promise it will be made public once the necessary parties have signed it to make it binding. Those parties include elected officials who, like the others, are apparently comfortable conducting public business in private. One of those elected officials is Vermont attorney general TJ Donovan, who has spoken out frequently in opposition to sending Vermont prisoners to out-of-state prisons. In 2016, during his first campaign for attorney general, Donovan said of out-of-state prisons, public or private:

They don’t work. They’re not successful in terms of getting people to reenter our community…. Number one, I think we should commit to terminating the contract – that’s number one.

That was in September 2016, after the US Department of Justice had announced that it would no longer send federal inmates to private, for-profit prisons. Donovan promised to seek similar action from the Vermont legislature, which hasn’t acted. In the meantime, Vermont prisoners have been shuffled from bad conditions in Michigan to worse conditions in Pennsylvania, without meaningful protection from the Vermont DOC. Now Donovan has the apparent power to block any new contract, fulfilling a campaign promise, just by withholding his signature. He has yet to comment on the contract with CoreCivic publicly. 

Despite the steep decline in the number of Vermont prisoners, Governor Phil Scott has proposed to spend upwards of $140 million (plus operational costs) to build Vermont’s largest prison, a 925-bed facility, to meet a need that demonstrably does not exist. Scott, a Republican, made his fortune in the construction business. Donovan has opposed the proposed prison as unnecessary and wrong-headed. As Donovan makes clear, neither sending Vermont prisoners out of state nor building another in-state prison has any relevance to Vermont’s reality of a shrinking prison population:

The story of how the state incarcerated fewer people while maintaining its standing as one of the safest states in the nation is a story of political courage and smart-on-crime approaches. The courage started with the hard work of many in state government and our partners around the state who declared a “War on Recidivism.” The smart-on-crime approach pushed the criminal justice system to divert nonviolent offenders, to rely on science, to adopt restorative justice principles and to use public health strategies in our public safety system. As a result, use of diversion is at an all-time high throughout our state and all counties have alternative justice programs and use evidence-based risk assessments. 

In May 2017, Donovan signed off on what turned out to be the disastrous contract with Pennsylvania’s Camp Hill prison, calling it an improvement because it brought the prisoners closer to Vermont and it was not a private for-profit prison. The contract currently pending with CoreCivic fails both those tests, sending Vermont prisoners to Mississippi to be in the tender care of a private for-profit prison company with no vested interest in rehabilitation. In 2017, Donovan said: “My goal is that any Vermonter that’s incarcerated is incarcerated within the state of Vermont.” That would exclude Mississippi.

Longtime Vermont state senator Richard McCormack framed the issue succinctly: 

Shipping prisoners out of state has always been a bad policy, originally adopted as “temporary.” Private for-profit prisons have especially poor records. Given Mississippi’s history of prison brutality, shipping prisoners there is especially bad policy. 

Attorney General Donovan has not responded to a request for comment on the pending Mississippi contract with CoreCivic.

The case against private, for-profit prisons is clear and widely ignored. One of the Trump administration’s earliest actions was to reverse the previous Justice Department decision and start sending more prisoners than ever, and more immigrants than ever, to profit-making corporations. The inhumane core argument is always that private for-profit prisons save taxpayers money, which is not easily demonstrable. It is also unlikely, since the private corporations are squeezing a profit out of a state function, so who gets squeezed? And the richest taxpayers would benefit most (if savings are real) from a policy that abuses “lesser” citizens. The benefits are chimerical.

When Phil Scott was running for governor in 2016, he stood up for the demagogic hypocrisy of the commercialization of justice:

In a perfect world, I believe that we should try to get all those who are incarcerated back in the state. The reality is it’s a lot less costly to have some out of state. If I have to choose between trying to give a break to senior citizens, or give a break to those who serve in the military, or single moms struggling to get by, I probably will choose those before trying to move out-of-state prisoners in state.

The corruption inherent in prisons-for-profit is palpable. Governments that use them do so by looting public funds for private gain, enriching out-of-state mega-corporations. Governments that outsource their prison populations not only abdicate their clear governmental responsibilities, they also:

  • Treat citizens as commodities by putting prisoners up for bid

  • Transfer Vermont prison jobs out of state

  • Subject Vermont prisoners to slave labor conditions

  • Subject Vermont prisoners to extortionate corporate pricing

  • Separate Vermont prisoners from families and legal counsel

These and other sadistic practices are state policy by default, largely carried out in secret. None of this is part of any prisoner’s duly-adjudicated sentence. This is all extra-judicial, cruel and unusual punishment, as unconstitutional as it is dishonest, inhumane, and despicable.