State corrections officials are searching for a contractor to house the inmates it doesn’t have room for in Vermont. But the process isn’t likely to dramatically improve conditions for the approximately 500 Vermonters serving time in Kentucky and Arizona.
Vermont’s four-year contract with Corrections Corporation of America is set to expire next July. And Commissioner of Corrections Andrew Pallito has started the bidding process to secure a new long-term new deal.
But Pallito says Vermont won’t bring a strong hand into its negotiations.
“There’s something like 100,000 beds in the out-of-state market,” Pallito said. “We’re only looking at 400 or 500 or 600 beds in total, and so we’re a pretty small consumer.”
And the pitfalls associated with out-of-state housing – including the distance it puts between inmates and their families – are likely to persist under whatever new contract Vermont signs.
“Because we’re such a small consumer in this market, we’re kind of not in a position where we can dictate a lot of the contract particulars,” Pallito said. “And so we’re a little bit at the mercy of the bidders.”
Pallito said there’s a chance Vermont will luck out. But he said laws in neighboring states make it unlikely that overflow inmates here will find new cells close to home.
Vermont first began sending inmates out of state under the administration of former Gov. Howard Dean in the mid-1990s. Defender General Matt Valerio recalled a time when the state was sending more than 700 prisoners out of state.
“But even at that time it was the fiscal pressure that was forcing the state to try that option,” Valerio said. “And currently that’s the exact same pressure that’s pushing inmates out of state.”
It costs about half as much per day to house a prisoner with CCA than it does at an in-state prison. One solution to the out-of-state dilemma involves the construction of a new prison facility inside Vermont. But that scenario is by all accounts cost prohibitive.
“So if we were to build a facility that could hold 500 people, it would probably be on the order of magnitude of $100 million,” Pallito said. “And so in a state where our capital bills run less than that, it’s complicated to build a facility that big.”
Valerio says that if the public and politicians are committed to ending out-of-state housing, there’s only one viable option.
“The biggest issue here, it’s very simple: It’s kind of like, you know, if you want to lose weight, you have to eat less calories than you burn off,” he said. “If you want to reduce the prison population, you have to put more people out than you’re putting in.”
While there’s generally broad consensus that sending people out of state is bad, Valerio said lawmakers have enacted policies that pretty much ensure the problem will persist.
“Over the years, with the elimination of good time off the minimum, with the elimination of certain furlough options and the like, people who are going in are staying longer, and there are more people going in,” he said.
Bids on the new prison contract are due by Oct. 23.