Our opinion: Mississippi is the wrong answer

Posted

Every so often, state government gets it right, and we're glad.

Unfortunately, this is not one of those times.

For years, more than 200 Vermont inmates serving long-term sentences have been shuttled between out-of-state prisons, because there's not room for them in the corrections facilities of the Green Mountain State. They've hopscotched from Kentucky to Michigan to Pennsylvania, and everywhere they've gone there have been concerns about living conditions, medical treatment, and long distances that all but prevent visits from family and friends back home.

Their latest stay, at Pennsylvania's State Correctional Institute at Camp Hill, has gone so poorly that the state terminated its contract early, due to concerns from prisoners about overly restrictive conditions and poor treatment. Three Vermont inmates died at Camp Hill last year, including a man whose lung cancer went untreated, and a fourth died earlier this month, in circumstances that remain under investigation.

Now VTDigger.org is reporting that the state is going to address those concerns — by sending those inmates to a private for-profit prison in Mississippi.

VTDigger reported that the Department of Corrections said it finalized negotiations with one of two facilities on Aug. 27 and plans to move the inmates in October, but has declined to say where the prisoners would move, citing a state statute regarding contracts.

But no one has denied the report that they're headed for Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility, either.

The old bromide about doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results applies here, and we are straining for logical explanations as to why this insanity should continue.

If prisons in Michigan and Kentucky were too far away for visits from family and loved ones, then how does Mississippi make any sense?

If the state was dissatisfied with medical care at Camp Hill, then why would it send inmates to a facility that's been cited as lacking by one of its out-of-state clients? VTDigger.org reported that recent audits from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation were critical of the quality of medical care at Tallahatchie.

Then, there's the moral bankruptcy of doing business with a for-profit prison company such as CoreCivic, which owns and operates Tallahatchie.

These are people who are making money off human misery and mass incarceration, which is experienced disproportionately by people of color. And we are complicit in perpetuating imprisonment as a profit vehicle with our tax dollars if we do business with this company or its peers.

Vermont inmates were held at CoreCivic facilities in Kentucky and Arizona from 2004 to 2015, under both Republican and Democratic administrations (Governors Jim Douglas and Peter Shumlin, respectively). According to the Vermont ACLU. the state's inmates were allegedly sexually assaulted by guards during that time, and CoreCivic was fined for insufficient staffing and an inadequate response to violence in its prisons.

If that's not enough cause for concern, consider this: CoreCivic owns and operates the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, which houses people being held by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) awaiting hearings in immigration court.

Thanks to the present administration's inhumane "zero tolerance" immigration policy, business is booming: In June, the facility sought permits to expand by 512 beds, a 35 percent expansion, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

Incidentally, the current warden at Otay Mesa, Fred Figueroa, was previously warden at Tallahatchie, according to CoreCivic's website.

Is this what we want our tax dollars supporting? Aren't we better off spending those dollars at home?

To be certain, these are inmates we are talking about, people who have been incarcerated because a jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that they committed serious crimes. We are not suggesting they be put up at a resort hotel. But they have human rights. And how we treat them says a lot about us, as people and as a society.

Shipping them thousands of miles away to a state where nobody cares about them, to people who are in business to make money off their misery, doesn't say much for us.

There are inmates in Vermont prisons largely because of their addictions to opiates, and not due to violent crimes against society. It's time we moved them along to a more useful and productive means of rehabilitation, and used that space to incarcerate people who really need to be behind bars. This is not to say selling heroin is a victimless crime; it is not. But selling drugs and stealing to feed an addiction to heroin is not the same as committing an act of violence.

Vermont can do better. It's time to bring these inmates back home, where they can finish their debt to Vermont in accordance with Vermont values.


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