One Tiny State’s Movement to Ban Private Prisons
Vermont, the most progressive state in America, spent over $14 million last year to lock up Vermonters in for-profit prisons like Lee Adjustment Center, located in Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest. Private prisons like Correctional Corporation of America (CCA)’s Lee Adjustment Center offer no mental health, educational or rehabilitational services, but they do post massive corporate profits; CCA showed revenue of $1.7 billion in 2011 alone. As best-selling author Michelle Alexander notes in her seminal book The New Jim Crow, more black men are under correctional control now than were enslaved in 1850. A recent New Yorker think piece noted more Americans are now incarcerated than there were imprisoned in Stalin’s gulags. Clearly a dialogue about the intersection of mass incarceration, budget crises, and privatization is unfolding. A group of Vermonters working out of Church basements and living rooms, is attempting to build a movement to push this conversation forward by passing a historic law banning Vermont’s use of for-profit prisons.
Behind the Profitable Private Prison Wall
According to southern Vermont’s Rutland Herald the number of prisoners in Vermont increased at “nearly five times the national average” between 2002 and 2003. The number of teenagers and young adults in Vermont jails surged by more than 77 percent. A racialized “get tough on crime” ideology, mandatory minimums, and harsher sentencing guidelines from the failed war on drugs left then Republican Vermont Governor Jim Douglas at a moment of departure: build new prisons, or start shipping Vermonters incarcerated under these controversial policies into the deep south to be warehoused without even the “rehabilitative” programs found in Vermont prisons.
According to Prison Legal News’ Matthew Clarke, CCA doubled the population of Lee Adjustment Center in three months in 2004 with a massive influx of some of the first Vermont prisoners housed in private prisons. These conditions and what State Senator James Leddy called a “rogue warden” led to an uprising at Lee Adjustment Center involving 100 inmates. Kentucky’s Louisville Currier Journal and Vermont’s Times Argus detailed how the rioters tore down fences, began “tearing apart” a wooden guard tower with a guard still inside, toppled the guard tower and fires “heavily damaged the administration building and guard shack.”
“The inmates literally had control of this place, the inner compound,” said Adam Corliss, an inmate from Springfield Vermont. A week and a half after the riot Montpelier,Vermont daily, The Times Argus, printed an excerpt of a Vermont inmates’ letter home to his finance detailing the uprising: “Inmates chasing guards with 2x4s breaking everything in sight…It was so hostile that the S.W.A.T. team of guards came in, launching tear gas, armed with shotguns.”
When the Assistant Warden summoned the 20-person response team only three responded. Clarke details the precipitating conditions: racial and regional prejudices, overcrowding, poor nutrition, and CCA’s warden undertaking, “a zero-tolerance disciplinary crackdown that gave guards the ability to discipline prisoners without proof of misconduct and even put them in solitary confinement for 60 days without disciplinary charges.” These conditions and the riot they produced happened in the first months of Vermont’s experiment with private prisons. Rather than serving as a cautionary tale about the hollowed out services privatization provides, policymakers have only increased the number of Vermonters housed in Lee Adjustment Center and other CCA prisons since.
The Moral Consequences of Privatization
“I could write a book about violations [against Vermonters in private prisons], says Frank Smith, of the Bluff City, Kansas based Private Correction Working Group. “I visited Beattyville after the Sept. 2004 riot and I have Open Records Act info on it. In Marion Adjustment Center (a CCA prison in St. Mary, Kentucky) there was sexual abuse by guards. CCA did very little to stop it or to help track down the offenders after they fled to avoid prosecution from MAC and the women’s prison -also known as, the “rape factory”- at Otter Creek, Kentucky.”
The same year of the Lee Adjustment Center uprising, The Vermont Guardian reported that Republican Governor Jim Douglas requested corporate bids for the health care for (what was then) 1,700 in-state prisoners. Douglas went with the lowest bidder, Prison Health Services, for $645 million over ten years, and Vermonters under their care started literally dying from inadequate care, including Ashley Ellis, a 23 year old woman serving a 30 day sentence.
Prison Health Services broke the contract, not due to concerns related to the deaths, but due to their projected profits never materializing. Prison Legal News editor Paul Wright was quoted by The Associated Press as saying Vermont “cannot contract out the public’s fundamental right to know how their tax dollars are being spent and the quality of services the public is getting for its money.”
Powerful Allies, Monolithic Opponents
According to a bombshell 2008 memo detailing the cost of Vermont’s for-profit prisons use, Vermont Auditor Doug Hoffer, then working as a private consultant for VSEA, wrote: “Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) does not provide mental health services. […] CCA does not provide services related to sexual abuse, substance abuse, or violent offenders.” According to the memo there’s a laundry list of programing provided here in Vermont facilities which are conspicuously absent from the for-profit prisons. “DOC programs not available through CCA include the Cognitive Self Change program for violent offenders; the Intensive Domestic Abuse Program; Batterers Intervention Program; the Network Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Programs; and the Discover Program for those with substance abuse problems.”
Suzi Wizowaty, a Democratic Vermont State Representative from Burlington and leads sponsor of H.28 which states “As of July 1, 2013, all Vermont inmates shall be incarcerated in correctional facilities that are owned and operated by the federal, state, or local government (‘public’).“ In explaining her bill, Wizowaty makes the case that in this time of austerity Vermonters want to use these public dollars responsibly. This means using public oversight. “The idea that private prisons save money is illusory and has been debunked, the most optimistic studies show that they are at the are a wash in spending, because there are higher rates of recidivism, less job training, therapy and programming. All we are doing is putting profits in the pockets in the prison corporations.”
Another elite schism which lends credence to Vermont’s anti-privatization effort comes from an unlikely place. Florida Republican State Senator Mike Fasano led a successful effort to stop the privatization of 27 prisons, saying, “We have a 10 percent-plus unemployment rate in the state of Florida, and the last thing we should be doing is moving prisons that were paid for by the taxpayers into the hands of corporations, that would probably put many of these families out of work, who have mortgages to pay, homeowner’s insurance to pay, food on the table. This would be devastating to—not only to their families, but also to the community they live in.
One might assume, given these financial and moral arguments policy makers would be feel compelled to discontinue using private prisons, if only because risk adverse State governments typically dislike courting law suits. However, the prison corporations Wizowaty and Hoffer have critiqued are Wall Street monoliths. CCA sent a letter to 48 states, dangling hundreds of millions of dollars in front of the cash strapped, austerity budget minded Governors, if only those states will privatize their prisons for the next twenty years. And, oh yeah, one other tiny piece of fine print: the prisons must be kept at least 90% full for the duration of the contract. Seemingly this would create a contractual incentive for states to enact harsher sentencing guidelines and policing procedures. Meanwhile as bestselling author and legal scholar Glenn Greenwald writes, “Since there is no well-funded lobby advocating for penal reform or promoting the interests of prisoners, the prison lobby goes virtually unchallenged and can buy the ability to shape pertinent laws at bargain basement prices.”
The military refers to mission creep as “the expansion of a project or mission beyond its original goals.” Corporate prisons who only know how to maximize profits for shareholders have expanded their mission to incarcerating 50% of immigrants detained in the US. Perhaps unsurprisingly the number of immigrants detained has exploded during the same period. Which begs the question: to what degree can a $1.7 billion per year prison corporation like CCA shape public policy? As a December 2008 Boston Phoenix article details: “[private prisons] regularly lobby against criminal punishment reforms, and for the creation of new criminal statues and overly harsh prison sentences. While these efforts are cloaked as calls for public safety, they are essentially creating more business for themselves [...] CCA spent more than $2.7 million from 2006 through September 2008 on lobbying for stricter laws.” Or, as CCA states in plainsong in its 2005 annual report: “Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new corrections and detention facilities. This possible growth depends on a number of factors we cannot control, including crime rates and sentencing patterns in various jurisdictions and acceptance of privatization. The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any change with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number or persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.”
The Primacy of Movement Building
“It is absolutely essential that we raise the profile of this issue. We will not get anywhere without people calling their public officials. We will not get anywhere without that kind of organizing,” says Wizowaty. With that in mind, in a Burlington church basement this Martin Luther King day weekend community organizers like Infinite Culcleasure began what they hope to be the first of many conversations about private prisons. “The grassroots component” says Culcleasure “is invaluable in overcoming the special interest and apathy that currently exists on this mass incarceration. With all of the competing crises for communities to manage, our greatest challenge in making this a watershed moment for prison reform is to make it a local issue, that is directly relevant in people’s everyday lives.” With a network of 145 churches statewide interested in hosting similar conversations, it seems the citizens of the tiny state of Vermont are poised to bring forward a very different vision than corporate mass incarceration.
That said, the CCA’s of the world are well-versed in utilizing their taxpayer-provided dollars to leverage Vermont’s political elite: they helped finance former-Governor Douglas’ Inaugural Ball and donate to influential State Senator’s re-elections. This is an industry which, as Glenn Greenwald notes in With Liberty and Justice for Some, has spent $3.3 million on state political parties and politicians in the 2002 and 2004 political cycles (according to a 2004 National Institute on Money In State Politics report.) Dick Sears, the influential Vermont State Senator who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee that this bill will have to emerge from, has received more campaign donations from private prisons than any other policymaker in Vermont’s Statehouse. CCA’s annual reports assume that this rarified historical moment where The New Jim Crow is a bestseller; The House I Live In has won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and Stop and Frisk has been declared unconstitutional won’t last forever. Certain social and political factors which prefigure a new social movement emerging are appearing. These include a loss of legitimacy in former institutions and attitudes, elite schisms, and unifying motivations. The question is one of organizing to scale. As with making health care a human right, decommissioning a failing nuclear power plant, and getting drivers licenses for migrant workers, if the Green Mountain State is to lead the country forward on private prisons, it’s dependent on Vermonters making good on their aspirations to build a statewide movement which will compel the Dick Sears’ of the Statehouse to move this bill forward.
As the first of many Vermont church basement organizing conversations unfolds, high schooler’s hands are flashing in the air: “How is this moral?” “Why do corporations do this?” and in so many different ways “What can I do?” Infinite Culcleasure and Suzi Wizowaty have skillfully transfigured the church basement of teenagers into eager community organizers. Before the conversation reaches its midpoint the high schoolers are poised to bring this dialogue out into the larger community; to hold their elected officials accountable and draw Vermonters across the state together to share their stories and build a movement which can be a sufficient countervailing force to the influence of Wall Street’s private prisons. Afterwards, the interstitial space of the Church hallway is luminous with excitement; the Pastor offers Suzi and Infinite the opportunity for similar conversations about for-profit prisons in congregations around Vermont. Just down the corridor a new generation of organizers is sending so many social media appeals to shutter Lee Adjustment Center, shutter CCA and to shutter the private prison industry. Their prescient questions haunt me as I walk out into the snow: “How is this moral?” “Why do corporations do this?” and in so many different ways “What can I do?”
Jonathan Leavitt is a journalist, community organizer, and teaches college classes about social movements in Burlington, VT Email: jonathan.c.leavitt(at)gmail.com