So Far, Private Mississippi Prison An Improvement Over Pennsylvania Facility, Experts Say
It has been more than three months since 215 Vermont inmates were transferred from a government-run prison in Pennsylvania to a private prison in Mississippi. Although the idea of private prisons is not popular in Vermont, corrections and prisoner-rights groups say that, so far, the inmates are better off in Mississippi.
Mississippi is infamous for having occasionally dangerous and corrupt prisons. Seth Lipschutz, the supervising attorney at the Prisoners’ Rights Office, said he was initially concerned about the Department of Correction's decision to send Vermont inmates to Tallahatchie County prison, run by the corporation CoreCivic.
After reports of bad treatment, medical services and inmate deaths at the Camp Hill prison in Pennsylvania, Lipschutz and Vermont Commissioner of Corrections Mike Touchette agreed that, after nearly four months, Tallahatchie has been an improvement.
“I would say that things are going reasonably well," Lipschutz said.
“It’s going very well to the best of our knowledge,” said Touchette, who cited the absence of grievances and negative media attention, as well as positive reports after staff visits.
Still, the transition has not been flawless. “I think there were two issues,” Touchette said. “One was around medications and whether or not there was sufficient supply on hand.”
According to Lipschutz, a shortage of available medication left some inmates without essentials including blood pressure and diabetes medications. Touchette said his team is working on that.
“One other thing early on,” Touchette said, “is that we did hear complaints about the portions of food. They were small. And what I’m hearing at this point is that they’ve increased pretty significantly.”
Touchette said after his office complained to CoreCivic, food quality and portions increased significantly.
In an email, CoreCivic public affairs director Amanda Gilchrist said, “The food service staff are making rounds in the housing area to address concerns, and there are several Vermont inmates assigned to the kitchen preparing food for the inmate population. The medical staff are reviewing all sick calls and ensuring the inmates needs and complaints are dealt with in a timely and professional manner.”
In Camp Hill Vermont inmates were subjected to Pennsylvania prison policies for everything from attorney phone calls to grievance resolution and inmate discipline. But inside the Mississippi prison, Vermont rules apply.
Touchette said the Vermont inmates in Mississippi have three full-time case workers based in Vermont, and a full-time contract monitor responsible for making sure CoreCivic abides by the terms of its contract.
At a minimum, Touchette said, two Vermont employees spend at least three days in Mississippi every month.
Lipschutz said he is more or less satisfied, for now. Then, he listed off the names of more than 10 states — from Virginia to Oklahoma— where Vermont inmates have recently resided. Advocates have long worried that sending inmates out-of-state strains their family relationships and makes it difficult for them to re-acclimate once released.
“One might say people are just getting used to a horrible situation,” Lipschutz said.