The state is no longer sending inmates to a Massachusetts jail and the change may have aggravated tensions in Vermont prisons.
Officials are reporting an up-tick in violence among inmates. They say out-of-state gang members held on drug charges may be responsible.
Vermont had been sending about 100 prisoners held on misdemeanor charges to a jail operated by the Franklin County Massachusetts sheriff’s department.
But that contract ended in June, and was not renewed. Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito says the state looked around New England for other places to move the prisoners, but received no satisfactory bids.
Felony offenders can be sent to private prisons in Kentucky and Arizona. But the state has no place to send the misdemeanor offenders, Pallitto says.
"What that means, though, is that we have a concentration in-state, in Vermont, of people who are not necessarily Vermont residents, or not Vermont residents, held on a lot of drug charges starting to pocket in Vermont," he says. "We looked at the violence associated with that, and violence was up in 2012 in Vermont’s facilities. We had no way to move them out of state."
Pallito says the violence includes assaults and fights between prisoners. He says some of those responsible are out-of-state gang members being held on misdemeanor drug charges.
"We have members in our facilities in Vermont that are members of very high-level gangs that we cannot send out of state and so it’s inhibiting our ability to separate them," he says.
Pallito says he can’t give a solid estimate on the number of Vermont prisoners who belong to gangs.
But prisoner rights advocate Gordon Bock says another reason for the increase in violence is overcrowding in Vermont prisons.
"My understanding is that all of our eight facilities in the state of Vermont borders are significantly either at or over-capacity," he says. "My understanding is that in certain facilities right now you do have three people in an 8 by 10 cell built for two people, and people are sleeping on floors."
Bock says gangs may be responsible for some of the violence. But he says the corrections department has failed to provide enough information to show there’s a real problem.
Bock also criticized Commissioner Pallito for suspending a corrections citizens advisory group.
"I don’t think it’s enough just to have a panel of the Legislature looking over the shoulder of corrections," he says. "I think you also have to un-elected citizens who care about these issues, who have a stake in them, especially family members of the incarcerated."
The Legislature’s oversight committee asked members of the public for their thoughts on the best way for citizens to provide input on corrections operations.