February 6, 2016

The Problem Of For-Profit Prisons Is “Insurmountable”

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Rep. Barbara Rachelson (Chittenden, D) received significant opposition from the Corrections and Institutions Committee this Thursday after proposing a plea for the state to “commit now to not renewing the three-year contract” with out-of-state, for-profit prisons.

Though minimal changes to the contract are being considered, Rep. Cynthia Browning (Bennington, D) said that, “forbidding it, or setting a date when [we] can no longer do it—I absolutely cannot consider.”

Rachelson cited several reputable studies detailing lamentable conditions for detainees in some for-profit prisons, and pointed out that Illinois outlawed government contracting with private prisons in 2012.

Rep. Butch Shaw (Rutland, R) said, “It’s not that I don’t care, but it is an insurmountable problem.”

Other committee members agreed: “In terms of finances in the state of Vermont, it is insurmountable,” said the committee’s chair, Rep. Alice Emmons (Windsor, D).

The Committee did not come to this conclusion for lack of trying, they told Rachelson. Several complicating factors preclude their divestment from these contracts:

Vermont’s Department of Corrections (DOC) is currently handling more prisoners than they have available beds, only about 1,600. This leaves the DOC with relatively few options.

“Either we have to build something [i.e. another prison] in a community in Vermont that is not anxious to have it or we have to reduce the [prisoner] population further,” Browning said.

In Vermont’s search for alternatives to private prisons, the DOC tried reaching out to the public facilities of other states, such as New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, to no avail: prisoner populations exceed state facilities’ capacity across the board.

At the average cost of $24,000 per prisoner sent out-of-state, Rachelson hopes that “[if] Vermont taxpayer dollars are going to help fund profits for shareholders, we’re at least asking what the outcomes are.”

There is currently very little empirical data on the effects of private versus public correctional facilities on recidivism, though Rachelson hopes that will change. “We are moving as a legislature towards results-based accountability,” she said, implying an optimism that this trend will extend to Vermont’s correctional institutions as well.

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