Since being transferred to a state-run Pennsylvania prison over the summer, Vermont inmates are having more difficulty than ever communicating with attorneys at the Vermont defender general’s office, according to Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio.
Vermont Corrections officials are aware of the defender general's concerns, but limited in their ability to impose specific policies on Pennsylvania prison officials, according to Deputy Commissioner of Corrections Mike Touchette.
Valerio said Tuesday that Vermonters housed in Pennsylvania’s state-run prison system are being denied confidential phone calls with their attorneys at the defender general’s office and are being discouraged – and sometimes outright prevented – from meeting with those attorneys during visits to the Pennsylvania prison.
Valerio said Vermont inmates in Pennsylvania are harder to communicate with and visit than they were at any previous out-of-state prison. All out-of-state prisons that previously housed Vermont inmates were owned and operated by private corporations.
“It’s much more difficult,” Valerio said in an interview with VPR.
Valerio said Vermont inmates have been housed in Tennessee, Alabama, Massachusetts, Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona in privately owned facilities operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
More recently, Vermont inmates were housed in a prison owned by GEO Group in Michigan. Those Vermont inmates were transferred over the summer to a state-operated prison in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania.
Valerio said his attorneys and investigators have never before had so much difficulty communicating with and accessing clients housed out of state.
“So far, this Pennsylvania placement has been far and away the most difficult to get access to the inmates to find out what’s going on down there and address whatever needs they might have, or even just to address their ongoing legal issues that they have in Vermont,” he said.
Valerio said the problems persist despite efforts to reach an agreement with Pennsylvania prison officials.
“I thought that we had reached an accommodation with the superintendent there during the summer when we sent our first delegation down there with the investigators, and then with investigators and attorneys, but they seem to have become more resistant to our efforts to talk to our own clients, and that is problematic,” Valerio said.
Valerio said his office has not ruled out legal action to get access to clients, but he said the legal relationship between Vermont and Pennsylvania is different than previous out-of-state corrections agreements. Vermont inmates are housed in Pennsylvania's state prison system under an "interstate compact."
“With Pennsylvania, because we are going through the interstate compact, it essentially places a Vermont inmate into the Pennsylvania commissioner’s custody, and the rules and policies and laws are all governed by Pennsylvania,” says Touchette.
That means that unlike Vermont's previous agreements with privately owned and operated prisons, Vermont's Department of Corrections doesn't get to set the rules for how Vermont inmates are treated.
Valerio said that is contributing to the problems his staff is having.
“This is not a private facility, this is a Pennsylvania [state] facility, and so the contract is subject to the interstate compact, and it basically allows the home state – wherever the inmates are held, not Vermont in this case – to make rules regarding access [to inmates] and what you have to do to get access to them,” Valerio said. “And Pennsylvania has a lot of hoops to try to jump through just to get to see and talk to inmates, which were not in place in Michigan with GEO [Group], were not in place with CCA in Kentucky and they’re not part of the culture here in Vermont.”
Valerio said his staff has even visited the Camp Hill prison, only to be denied access to some clients.
Touchette, the deputy commissioner of Vermont’s Department of Corrections, said the same interstate compact mentioned by Valerio has the effect of limiting Vermont DOC’s ability to impose policies or conditions related to how Pennsylvania handles prisoners.
“We are in conversations with Pennsylvania about a concept. We have very little authority to impose that or impose any sort of penalty fee against Pennsylvania because again, this falls under the interstate compact,” Touchette said. “That said, we are hearing the concerns from the Defender General’s office and we have proposed a solution to Pennsylvania, but we don’t have the leverage to impose any sort of fine or penalty to Pennsylvania if they don’t follow through with that.”
Officials at the Camp Hill prison in Pennsylvania did not respond to interview requests Wednesday after VPR refused to share a written list of interview questions with officials.
Valerio said previous attempts to address the access problems have not gotten results.
“We’ve had what we thought were agreements to go forward and make it easier to speak to inmates, and when we show up to try to have those meetings we’re not allowed to,” he said. “So to some degree, I think that Pennsylvania is just doing business as usual the way they are used to doing business, and we’ve got to get them to start to accommodate the way we need to do business.”
Valerio said officials at Camp Hill do not allow inmates to have confidential phone calls with their attorneys. Prison officials also require inmates to sign up in advance for meetings with the Defender General staff who visit the prison, Valerio said. If an inmate wants to meet with Valerio’s staff but hasn’t signed up, he said, officials won’t let that inmate have the meeting.
“If you don’t sign the list, then even if they know we’re there and we have time, they’re not allowing other inmates to come and speak to us. There’s also some suggestion that inmates are dissuaded from signing the list because they don’t want to be seen as 'troublemakers,'” Valerio said.
Valerio's staff is encountering obstacle after obstacle as they try to contact Vermont inmates housed in Pennsylvania's Camp Hill prison, where 68-year-old Vermont inmate Roger Brown died in mid-October.
"There have been general representations from my investigative staff that have said 'Look, we go down there, we play by their rules, we do what they want us to do and then they still don't let us see the people we've come down to see.' And they say that they've changed the rules. So it's still relatively new, but it's a problem," Valerio said.
From a policy perspective, Touchette said, the Pennsylvania policy is mostly consistent with previous arrangements for how the defender general’s staff meet with out-of-state inmates.
“The inmate is notified that the defender general's office will be there, the inmate has the opportunity to sign up and meet with one of the investigators, and then they’re scheduled into a time to meet with them,” Touchette said.
However, some special accommodations were made at the GEO Group facility in Michigan “where an inmate who had not signed up had at the last minute expressed and interest to meet with the investigator, and they allowed that.”
Pennsylvania does not allow such last-minute changes, Touchette said.
Touchette said Vermont’s system that allows attorneys to speak confidentially with their clients who are in prison is rare in U.S. corrections systems, and it’s not available to Vermont inmates housed in Pennsylvania.
“Our contract [with Pennsylvania] did not specify that they had to include access to a privileged lawyer line,” Touchette said.
Touchette said a confidential lawyer line was installed at the GEO Group prison in Michigan after Vermont inmates moved in there, though that was not required by Vermont’s contract with GEO Group.