Warden Martin Frink walked local legislator Curt Taylor down the long corridors of Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility—a CoreCivic-owned maximum-security prison in Mississippi where Vermont’s out-of-state incarcerated population was moved from a Pennsylvania facility last September.
As the duo toured the space Taylor watched Frink banter with workers and get along with the incarcerated population.
“Overall I was impressed,” he said. “It seemed to be a well-run facility.”
Taylor’s visit was prompted, in part, by the many letters he receives from Vermont’s out-of-state prisoners through his work on the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions.
He elected to use his legislative vacation, the week of Town Meeting, to fly down to Mississippi and gain a first-hand understanding of the facility.
Vermont currently has 1,550 incarcerated persons in-state and 241 prisoners in the Mississippi facility, according to corrections commissioner Mike Touchette. While the state’s incarcerated population is at times the smallest in the
nation, there are not enough beds in its seven facilities to house all 1,791 inmates.
“It’s not the ideal situation. Our desire would be to have them all back in Vermont,” Touchette said.“[But] it would be inhumane to bring all of these people back; there’d be literally no place for them to sleep or to bathe.”
In Mississippi, Taylor arranged to visit with the prisoners who most frequently write him. He does not customarily write them back but wanted them to know they were being heard.
According to Taylor, the five Vermonters he spoke with were by and large pleased with the new facilities. All of them had been moved from a Pennsylvania prison this fall and were glad to leave that institution.
“All of them said that it was great to get out of Pennsylvania and that Mississippi is much better,” Taylor said, adding when he asked them if they’d like to return to Vermont a “surprising number said ‘no.’’’
The facility seemed clean to Taylor. He saw no mold or dripping pipes as he toured around its pods. CoreCivic has drawn sharp criticism for conditions at some of its other prisons.
“Mississippi seems to be okay,” Taylor said. “There are some problems; there’s problems in any large institutions like that.”
The incarcerated persons he spoke with complained about recreational space and food temperature. They shared a desire to access an outdoor area that is larger than their own and houses a baseball field. The inmates also cited frustration with the temperature of their meals, which are cooked in a central kitchen and wheeled in trays across the facility to their rooms.
But Taylor said these problems are being addressed. The facility houses about 2,500 people, which means food must be cooked early and delivered en masse. However, microwaves were recently added to the pods allowing incarcerated persons to reheat their meals. As for the recreational area, the facility has contracts with multiple groups meaning there are various populations of people using the space. It remains to be solved how they’ll grant Vermonters access to the larger field while other groups are using the space, Taylor said.
It wasn’t all-bad though. According to Taylor, the Mississippi facility appears to have more work opportunities for Vermonters than the Pennsylvania prison did. By contract, Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility must provide 40 percent of Vermont prisoners with work. Thus far, our out-of-state incarcerated persons have served in the kitchen and worked around the facility doing laundry and cleaning recreation fields. They’ve had the opportunity to take computer, carpentry and literacy courses, Taylor said.
In-state incarcerated peoples have similar work opportunities through offerings like the Vermont Offender Work Program, which features various vocational opportunities. In-state offenders can also enroll in the Community High School of Vermont to earn a high school diploma, according to Touchette. Plus, they can advance their education with undergraduate coursework through the University of Vermont and the Community College of Vermont
To house prisoners out-of-state runs Vermont about $30,636 annually per inmate, Touchette said. In-state, that figure is about $66,151.
“A lot of the reason why Vermont’s system is more expensive than it is out of state is the scale of economy,” Touchette said. “We have very very small correctional facilities in comparison to what you see in Mississippi and what you see in other states.”
But legislators are looking into different solutions with the hope that Vermont’s incarcerated population may all return to the Green Mountain State one day.
Gov. Phil Scott proposed an 850-bed prison facility to be built in Franklin County last year. It’s something Taylor said the corrections committee is considering. However, he added there are factors beyond bed-count to consider. For example, the location of regional facilities better positions them for outside services and community integration. “There’s an advantage to having the scattered system with several facilities in different places,” Taylor said, adding having facilities near communities can help work inmates back into the general population so they are better equipped to adjust and remain out of prison after they are released.
“That’s hard to do when you have a big facility that’s isolated,” he said.
Of course, having seven facilities around the state is more costly than one large site, Taylor said. That’s part of why it’s taken so long to find a solution—Vermont has sent part of its incarcerated population out-of-state for over two decades.
“People are getting frustrated and I’m getting frustrated so a decision has to be made,” he said. “The current system is not adequate for our needs.”