By Jack Borbee
In 2010, Vermont had 2,248 incarcerated individuals under its watch. Today, that figure is just 1,258–a 44 percent decline. For supporters of criminal justice reform and lawmakers looking to lower Vermont’s inmate population, that’s good news – right? Wrong, say activists. Vermont Daily explores this complex situation further.
A Declining Population
Vermont’s incarcerated population is continuing its long trend of a steady decline. Indeed, between 2020 and so far in 2021 alone, the number of incarcerated individuals has fallen by 24 percent –making 2020 the 10th consecutive year of a decline in Vermont’s prison population.
A significant portion of this drop is due to a drop in the holding of low-level offenders. Indeed, more than 60 percent of the current incarcerated population is booked due to “serious felonies,” with another 30 percent incarcerated as a result of felonies of another type. Only 5.4 percent are incarcerated due to misdemeanors, while the rest are uncategorized.
Vermont’s 1,250+ inmates are spread out across six in-state correctional facilities, and one out-of-state facility that is privately managed–Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility (TCCF) in Mississippi. TCCF holds about 14.4 percent of Vermont’s inmate population–all of whom are male, and all but two of whom are convicted or accused of felony-level offenses.
In 2019, then-President Pro Tem of the Vermont Senate Tim Ashe called on senators to push for reforms to reduce Vermont’s incarcerated population by at least 250 by the year 2022. It’s early 2021, and that target has already been achieved and exceeded.
Yet, not all are satisfied.
Those pushing for criminal justice reforms are eager to see two further reforms: a greater decline in Vermont’s incarceration numbers, and the elimination of Vermont’s private prison contract with TCCF.
Representative Barbara Rachelson (D-Burlington) has sponsored two bills–H.190 and H.191–that would prohibit the use of out-of-state, privately-managed prisons altogether. According to Rachelson, “It is bad for prisoners to be out of state – we know the outcomes are worse, we must stop. And we know the care in for profits has been awful. Their main goal is to make a profit. They should be taken off the table as a viable option.”
Rachelson cited several published articles and studies to support her claims. Her advocacy on this issue is shared by a wide cross section of Progressives and Democrats in the Vermont Legislature, representing a doctrinal shift in thinking among some Vermont Democrats. Former Governor Peter Shumlin (D) received $1,000 from the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) for his inaugural ball, $1,000 for his 2012 re-election campaign, and another $500 for his 2014 re-election campaign.
Even putting aside Democratic Party changes, Rachelson’s proposed solution isn’t so clear-cut.
Senator Joe Benning (R-Caledonia-Orange District) – who chairs the Senate Institution Committee – stated “I don’t believe it is realistic to believe we can simply wave a magic wand and end either private facilities or out of state placements.” Benning cites the need for privately-managed speciality facilities for mental health, as well as a massive investment by the state that would be needed to accomplish Rachelson’s priorities.
Indeed, the figures suggest such a drastic step could be difficult without investment in further in-state capacity. Presently, Vermont’s in-state prison facilities have a capacity of about 1,500. If Vermont ended its arrangement with TCCF and brought home all 180 out-of-state inmates, it would essentially be operating at nearly 84 percent capacity–leaving little room in the event of an unanticipated increase in incarcerations, a slowdown in the processing of detainees waiting to be sentenced, or an increase in the number of individuals on hold-status who are waiting to be placed elsewhere by U.S. Marshalls.
Therefore, even without implementing Rachelson’s legislation, the state faces a challenge: How do policymakers address aging correctional facilities with limited capacity?
What Does the Future Hold?
In 2019, the Vermont Agency of Human Services (AHS) issued a report outlining the inadequacy of Vermont’s quickly-aging corrections infrastructure. It presented a menu of options that included a 850-bed scaleable facility, a 400-bed detention center, and an expansion of Southern State Correctional Facility. Legislators did not act on any of the items.
Now, lawmakers are again faced with reality: the aging Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility needs replacement, at a potential cost of $50 million – which would nearly double the state’s current capital budget for new construction. Several options are being considered, including a new standalone women’s prison, a campus that houses both a new women’s prison and a re-entry program, and a larger facility that could house all inmates.
Rachelson “would hate” the last option, but is not keen on the others either, suggesting “we must be cautious about any building that would encourage increased incarceration.”
For Benning, the limiting factor has been simple: money. He noted the lack of available resources to invest in a new facility in recent years, but indicated he’ll be closely following the House’s deliberations, as well as considerations by the Senate Judiciary Committee – of which he is also a member.
With aging infrastructure, a near-capacity population, and calls to end contracts with private prison providers, Vermont legislators have their work cut out for them. It remains to be seen whether they will act this session, or defer the decisions to another time.