A contentious debate has emerged over prison policies, as the Vermont Department of Corrections readies a plan to send some inmates to a facility in Mississippi run by a for-profit company.
Opponents call the idea immoral, but the governor says it's simply the best option his administration has right now.
"We're anticipating the signing of a contract," Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, said Wednesday of a plan to move more than 200 of Vermont's prison inmates to a facility in Tallahatchie, Mississippi, run by CoreCivic.
CoreCivic is a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange, and was formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America.
With prison space in Vermont tight, the state has been relying on out-of-state prison contracts for years, but a current deal with the state of Pennsylvania has been sharply criticized, after several inmate deaths.
The planned Mississippi move, though, is already controversial, even before the contract is signed.
The ACLU of Vermont recently criticized the pending deal, saying in a tweet that it's "disgraceful for Vermont taxpayer $$ to be lining the pockets of the private prison industry."
Gov. Scott had proposed investing in expansions to infrastructure here at home, adding a forensic facility, and new prison cells and beds, so out-of-state deals wouldn’t be needed.
However, the idea did not gain traction in the legislature.
"My prerogative would be to house everyone here in Vermont," Gov. Scott told necn Wednesday. "But at this point in time, that's not feasible, so we have to make the best deal we can."
Gov. Scott's Democratic opponent in November, Christine Hallquist, said she wants to see Vermont's trend of prison population reductions continue.
Hallquist said in an interview with necn that she would like to see out-of-state prison contracts end through a combination of criminal justice reforms, new construction at home, approaches like non-prison sentences for low-level crimes, and even home confinement for certain offenses.
"America incarcerates its prison population at five times the rest of the world," Hallquist said of her belief that too many Vermonters are currently housed behind bars. "I think the idea of for-profit–the idea of putting people in prison for profit–is uncivilized; it’s not something [corporations] should be making money from."
Gov. Scott argued that working with a for-profit prison company may actually give the Vermont Department of Corrections greater control over handling of its inmates than the state had with the Pennsylvania deal — which Scott said was subject to Pennsylvania corrections policies.
"When you have a for-profit, you're able to make those contractual arrangements, so you make sure you have what you want for those offenders," Scott said. "We have to do what's best for the taxpayers, as well."
Amanda Gilchrist, a spokeswoman for the company Vermont has been negotiating with for the Mississippi move, CoreCivic, said in a written statement that CoreCivic is an experienced provider of quality correctional and reentry services, dedicated to helping keep communities safe, preparing inmates for life after prison, and saving taxpayers money.
Gilchrist said thousands of inmates housed in its facilities are enrolled in re-entry programs.
Meg McCarthy, whose husband is currently serving a lengthy prison sentence in Vermont, but who was previously housed in a corporate-run facility out-of-state, said she is deeply worried about the pending Mississippi deal—and not just for her husband's sake.
"The corporations do cut corners," McCarthy claimed.
McCarthy predicted shipping inmates even farther from home than Pennsylvania will hurt their chances at positive reentry back into their communities.
"I feel strongly that a big part of keeping the rehabilitation going is to have people who care for them nearby and able to visit on a regular basis," McCarthy said.
Vermont corrections officials toured the Tallahatchie, Mississippi center run by CoreCivic as part of their research into the pending move.