Editor’s note: This commentary is by T.J. Donovan, who has served as Chittenden County state’s attorney since 2006 and is currently a candidate for attorney general of Vermont.
Shipping Vermonters convicted of a crime out of state is cheap and easy but abandons the obligation we owe our communities and each other to ensure that offenders can re-enter our cities, towns and villages as productive members of safe communities.
Private prisons mean bad service, low to no accountability, and poor outcomes for those warehoused in these facilities. These for-profit corporations are run to serve the financial interests of their shareholders, not the interests of Vermont in rehabilitating citizens who have run afoul of the law. Private profit in the criminal justice system creates perverse incentives contrary to the rehabilitation goals that will best serve Vermont. Prison companies have an incentive to provide as few services as possible and to lobby politicians for longer prison sentences to increase profits.
Private prisons substitute low wage, non-union, and relatively untrained employees for the well-trained corrections professionals who work in Vermont. Incarcerated Vermonters housed out of state also have less access to attorneys and even the cost of phone calls has been a scandal nationally. It is a basic fact, recognized by families, courts and advocates, that incarceration out of state is inferior to keeping Vermonters at home because contacts with the community and family significantly benefit both the prisoner and his or her family and re-entry becomes more challenging as family and community support is eroded.
From all this it is clear that private prisons are a bad investment for Vermont financially, morally and practically. We can and should do better. In failing to rehabilitate incarcerated persons, we fail to protect the future safety of our communities, while also failing to respect the individual person in our custody. More than 40 percent of incarcerated persons with sentences of over a year re-offend within three years of release. We have to reduce that rate. I believe one of the most important steps in achieving this goal is to eliminate the use of private prisons for Vermont’s incarcerated population. By doing so we can increase accountability for the rehabilitation process and increase the odds that offenders can be successfully reintegrated into their communities.
The best outcomes for our communities usually come from within our communities. For example, our local community justice panels, implementing restorative justice principles, enhance Vermonters’ public safety more than private prisons ever could. We all end up worse when we destroy community ties, breaking the bonds essential to creating good citizens. Prisons are a basic governmental obligation and the rehabilitation of offenders for the purpose of their re-entry into public life must be accomplished in a way that ensures the expectations of our communities are met. Vermonters must be able to rely on the competent and transparent administration of our prisons and have confidence that the state is supporting a well-trained, committed and efficient corrections workforce. Without the governmental and community oversight that exists in Vermont’s prison system, we have less ability to ensure incarcerated persons are treated fairly and have access to meaningful programs that will fulfill our goal of successful rehabilitation and reintegration.
We are making substantial progress in decreasing the number of Vermonters held in private prisons. In 2014, Vermont had 491 out of its 2,111 average daily incarcerated population being warehoused in out-of-state prisons. A year later, the population has been reduced to approximately 270, out of a total population of 1,760 incarcerated persons. While we have made progress, there is more to do. We must bring all incarcerated Vermonters back to Vermont to improve their futures as well as ours.