Earlier in June, 269 Vermont inmates moved from a private prison in Michigan to a Pennsylvania prison called Camp Hill, but the unit they were placed in can only hold 252 inmates. Advocates say that could be bad news for the 17 Vermont inmates who are now separated from the rest.
Audio for this story will be posted.
“J-Unit has 252 beds, and that has been nominated sort of as Vermont's unit,” says Anna Stevens, the outreach director for Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform.
Before the inmates moved in, Stevens went down to Pennsylvania to see the prison and take a tour.
“What I was struck by was how huge and how different this experience was going to be for the Vermont prisoners than their experience has been in Michigan, where they were the sole residents of the facility,” she said. “It’s 52 acres, it’s 44 buildings. The tour took about two-and-a-half hours. It is a city of a prison.”
Camp Hill alone holds more inmates than there are in Vermont's entire corrections system, Stevens says.
While the 252 Vermont inmates in J-Unit will be with people they already know, Stevens says she's worried about the other 17 being placed with Pennsylvania inmates.
“They're sort of at the bottom of the metaphorical totem pole, and that is potentially both challenging and scary,” she said. “And our understanding is there is some gang violence there and it just could be concerning that that's such a shift from the experience that they have been having.”
Mike Touchette, the deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Corrections, says there's nothing in writing that says the out-of-state inmates have to stay together, but Pennsylvania officials are trying their best.
“The current agreement does not specify that Pennsylvania Department of Corrections must house all Vermont inmates in the same units,” he said.
Touchette says there's an inmate classification system in place that will ensure inmates are placed appropriately in Pennsylvania, but Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform has a different idea: Bring those 17 guys home.
“We have the ability to open up 17 beds probably almost immediately,” Stevens says.
The whole reason Vermont is sending inmates out of state in the first place is because Vermont's prisons don't have enough space, and Touchette says the state doesn’t currently have the capacity to bring 17 inmates back into Vermont prisons.
But Stevens is onto something; at a given time, Vermont incarcerates around 150 people who are eligible for release. Those prisoners can't leave because corrections officials haven't approved the living situation the inmates have lined up for after they get out.
Corrections officials say the state keeps those people behind bars for public safety. But if inmates reach their maximum sentence without officials approving a housing situation, they just get released, housing or not.
To Suzi Wizowaty, the executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, that doesn't make sense.
“What's the difference?” she asks. “There is no difference in terms of public safety. This is purely a liability - a feeling responsible kind of issue - DOC doesn't want to be responsible on the off chance that somebody messes up when they're out before their max.”
Wizowaty says there’s no legal risk to releasing eligible inmates, and she says if Vermont changed this policy it would open up space in Vermont prisons so the state wouldn't send so many people out of state.
Plus, she says the policy gives a lot of discretion to corrections officials as they evaluate a situation. Those criteria should be objective, Wizowaty said, to give all inmates a fair shot at getting out.
What might that policy look like?
“If the person hasn’t received a major disciplinary report, for example, and if the person has done his or her programming – those are two things that could be verified – then the person gets out, period,” Wizowaty proposed.
But DOC Deputy Commissioner Mike Touchette says any changes that result in more inmates being released could jeopardize public safety, the safety of past victims or inmates' well-being.
“I'm not sure that there's a lot more opportunity for us currently to stretch that without potentially compromising any one of those areas,” Touchette says.
Unless the numbers or the policy change, the reality of Vermont's corrections system and its policies means 17 Vermont inmates will be mixed in with Pennsylvania inmates at Camp Hill.