Vermont’s Department of Corrections is in close communication with officials in Pennsylvania about concerns and complaints from Vermont inmates staying in Pennsylvania’s Camp Hill prison, according to Deputy Corrections Commissioner Mike Touchette.
On June 12, the state moved 269 Vermont inmates from a privately owned prison facility in Michigan to Camp Hill. Since then, reports of verbal and physical abuse from guards have come from Vermonters in Camp Hill. Some inmates also say they’re allowed very short showers, kept in their cells for most of every day and afforded only one phone call every four days.
Touchette said some of those reports have been verified while officials have found no proof of other allegations. He said some of those issues may go away once the Pennsylvania facility has finished processing the new inmates.
“When they receive 269 Vermont inmates on one day, it obviously added significantly to [their] workload,” Touchette said. “So Pennsylvania is still trying to work through getting everybody fully processed and that has taken some time.”
Touchette said for safety and security reasons, some aspects of life in prison – like the amount of time inmates are allowed to spend outside of their cells and the number and frequency of phone calls – won’t return to normal until after the inmates are processed.
“We are, however, getting daily reports from our staff that have been there since we moved in and will continue to be there for several more weeks. And the daily reports continue to demonstrate that out-of-cell time, access to … recreation, intramural types of exercises, rec yard, religious affairs, commissary, all of that has dramatically increased as people go through that reception process.”
Some of the complaints are more serious than inmates feeling inconvenienced. One inmate wrote a letter to Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform pleading for help.
“I have never written to you before but this time I am in feer [sic.] of my life,” the inmate wrote. The man, serving a sentence for first degree murder, reported being diabetic and said that officials refused to give him insulin for three days and then would not allow him to eat at the appropriate time around a dose.
“I have been in [prison] 20 years and should only have less than 2 years left,” he wrote. “I am afraid I will not make it.”
Touchette said the Department of Corrections is in constant communication with Pennsylvania officials about concerns raised by inmates or their families, and officials in both states are taking inmate health and safety seriously.
“Any concerns that are coming in, whether it be from family or friends or from an advocacy group, we’re getting those immediately over to Pennsylvania. Yesterday we actually had a phone call with Pennsylvania to review some of these emails and concerns that have been coming in,” he said. “A lot of them are without any details which makes it difficult to actually go back and then take a look at a specific incident or a specific person or a specific process.”
Touchette said officials did confirm that inmates have been getting one phone call every four days, and he said that is not Pennsylvania’s policy.
“In fact, they were very clear with us in our discussion with them yesterday that is not their policy,” Touchette said.
The issue, Touchette said, is that each inmate has to get approval for the people they wish to talk to on the phone. This ensures inmates aren’t making any calls to victims or otherwise compromising the safety and security of others, Touchette said, but the process of approving a list of inmate contacts takes time.
“So there has been some limited phone calls, but Pennsylvania was very clear with us yesterday that once everybody has been processed there won’t be a limit to once every four days,” Touchette said.
Touchette also said more work opportunities will become available for inmates once they are processed; currently, just over a dozen cleaning jobs are available to the 269 Vermont inmates at Camp Hill.
Video conferencing, which was available to inmates and their families when the inmates were in Michigan, is not available in the Pennsylvania system, Touchette said.