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July 13, 2012

VT DOC Ends Contract With "Problematic" Massachusetts Prison

Franklin County JailThe Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC) has stopped sending inmates to the Massachusetts jail where Vermont offenders rioted last summer over substandard confinement conditions.

Vermont Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito confirmed this week that the state did not renew its contract with the Franklin County Jail & House of Correction before it expired June 30 and has not housed any offenders there since May. Beginning in 2010, DOC was sending about 100 inmates to the Greenfield, Mass. jail, a move that saved corrections department about $357,000.

Pallito was not immediately available for further comment. But Sen. Dick Sears (D–Bennington), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he visited the Massachusetts lockup with the commissioner last September and described it as "problematic" on several fronts, including its lack of outdoor recreational facilities as well as the inability of inmates to have physical-contact visits with their loved ones.

"Initially, a lot of us here in southern Vermont were glad to see the Franklin County contract, because offenders would be closer to home than if they were in Newport or St. Albans," Sears said. "But it just didn’t work out the way we hoped."

"Upon further investigation," Sears added, "we realized there were a lot of other issues there."

In July 2011, about a dozen Vermont offenders refused guards' orders to return to their cells and began smashing windows, furniture, ceiling tiles and video cameras. Although no injuries were reported, the Vermont inmates caused about a quarter-million dollars in damage.

News that DOC had discontinued its relationship with the Massachusetts jail was first brought to light by Gordon Bock of CURE-VT — the local chapter of the national prisoners' rights group, Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants. Bock, who also served on the now-defunct Corrections Citizens’ Advisory Group, was seeking additional information on a "request for proposals" for prison beds near Vermont's borders when Pallito confirmed that the contract had not been renewed.

Bock called the discontinued contract with the Franklin County Jail "bittersweet news" for Vermont inmates and their loved ones, some of whom are now being housed in for-profit prisons in Kentucky and Arizona. Bock described the Massachusetts facility as a "dilapidated county lockup that was never equipped to hold anyone but pretrial detainees for the customary 30 to 60 days."

But the prisoners' rights advocate says corrections officials should have known about the substandard conditions based on reports from inmates' family members.

Corrections saves significant money by sending inmates out of state rather than housing them in Vermont, where the per-inmate cost exceeds $47,000 on average. According to Sears, the state has been trying to reduce its reliance on out-of-state prison beds since 2006, and has dropped that number from 700 to about 400.

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