by Christopher Zoukis
Several state prison systems are facing a dilemma: too many prisoners and not enough beds. An increasingly popular solution to this problem is to transfer prisoners to facilities in other states, sometimes thousands of miles away, where there is surplus bed space available. That extra space is typically found in private, for-profit prisons.
In February 2018, Idaho announced the transfer of 250 men from medium- and high-security state prisons to the Karnes County Correctional Center in Texas. The 550-bed facility is operated by private prison firm GEO Group. Denise Tyler, founder of the Idaho Inmate Family Support Group, said her organization has received dozens of letters from prisoners protesting the move.
“They feel like they’re being punished and their overall morale has dropped because they have been ripped away from their family and support system,” Tyler stated.
According to the Idaho Department of Correction (DOC), the prisoners will remain at the Texas facility until the state executes a long-term contract to house up to 1,000 prisoners in out-of-state facilities. Henry Atencio, director of the DOC, said his department is out of better options.
“We wish we didn’t have to send inmates out of state; we know it creates challenges for the inmates, their families and our staff,” he admitted. “But as Idaho grows, so does the size of our prison population, and we simply have no more room here at home.”
As of October 2018, the Idaho DOC was housing 151 prisoners at the Karnes County prison and another 548 prisoners at the Eagle Pass Correctional Facility in Texas, also run by the GEO Group. It cost the state slightly more to send prisoners out of state: $68.32 per day at Idaho state prisons versus $69.95 per day in Texas (plus transport and medical costs).
On November 2, 2018, a fight broke out among Idaho prisoners housed at Eagle Pass and one guard was sent to a hospital. The DOC described the incident as a “disturbance,” not a riot – though a prison tactical team had to be called in. That same week another clash occurred, when an Idaho prisoner at Eagle Pass set a fire in a trash can and several dozen prisoners created a disturbance. The tactical team was brought in again.
In April 2018, Wyoming sent the first of 88 high-security prisoners to the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility (TCCF), a prison in Tutwiler, Mississippi operated by CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America. Wyoming is suffering from staff shortages and aging prisons which made the move necessary, according to the state’s DOC. It paid $52,500 to send the prisoners on a 1,300-mile, 32-hour bus ride to their new temporary home.
Wyoming DOC spokesman Mark Horan said not only will the move ease overcrowded conditions for the state’s 2,477 prisoners, it will also save the state money. He noted it costs $131 per day to house a prisoner at the Wyoming State Penitentiary, but the DOC is paying only $70.42 per day to keep prisoners in Mississippi.
The Wyoming prisoners will be housed separately from the rest of the Tallahatchie population. Carl Voigtsberger, a DOC classification and housing manager, said he didn’t know how long they would be held over 1,000 miles away from their families.
“Until we solve the problem,” Voigtsberger stated. “It’s pretty open ended.”
“If we’re going to move inmates across the country, we don’t want to have to continue to move them back and forth,” Horan said, adding that most of the prisoners would not be eligible for parole for many years.
CoreCivic scored another out-of-state contract when Nevada officials agreed to send 200 prisoners, including alleged gang members, to one of the company’s facilities in Eloy, Arizona. The medium-security Saguaro Correctional Center already houses over 1,000 prisoners from Hawaii, which has long sent prisoners to mainland facilities. Nevada will pay CoreCivic $9.2 million to hold its prisoners for two years. Company spokesman Jonathan Burns said they were a good choice to handle Nevada’s excess prisoner population.
“We are confident our state-of-the-art facility, combined with CoreCivic’s deep experience managing a wide range of inmates, will lead to a successful partnership,” Burns said, ignoring the fact that CoreCivic has a terrible track record with respect to housing out-of-state prisoners – and in-state prisoners too, for that matter.
According to NV-CURE, 100 of the Nevada prisoners will be returned to their home state by July 2019, with the remainder being returned by December 2019; that information reportedly came directly from Nevada DOC director James Dzurenda.
Not every state has been satisfied when transferring their prisoners to other jurisdictions, though.
In February 2018, following the deaths of two Vermont prisoners within the first four months after 228 men were moved to State Correctional Institution (SCI) Camp Hill in Pennsylvania, Vermont state Senator Dick Sears and Rep. Alice Emmons wrote a letter to Governor Phil Scott, asking that all the prisoners either be moved to a different facility or returned to their home state.
“I felt it was time to move forward, recognizing this group is a very difficult group, they’re not choir boys, [they’ve committed] some of the most heinous crimes in the state of Vermont,” Senator Sears said.
But he added that most of the men would end up back in their communities in Vermont, so the state needed to ensure they received programming to make that transition successful. A third Vermont prisoner died in November 2017, shortly after his release from SCI Camp Hill, where most of the population is held in lockdown conditions.
Vermont DOC Commissioner Lisa Menard agreed that the prisoners should be sent to a facility with more freedom of movement, access to education and programming, and more opportunities for family contact.
“It’s not a facility, we now see, that is designed for, we believe, long-term housing,” Menard said.
The decision came too late for Vermont prisoner Michael Senna. The 63-year-old was found dead in his cell at SCI Camp Hill in September 2018. That same month, Commissioner Menard announced that all Vermont prisoners at the facility would be moved to CoreCivic’s Tallahatchie prison in Mississippi by October, dissolving the state’s $7.1 million contract with Pennsylvania just a year into its three-year term.
“The same concerns that motivated Vermont to terminate the Pennsylvania contract apply in full to this latest [CoreCivic] contract, and Vermonters should question the wisdom of moving inmates from an unacceptable situation to one that is likely to be even worse,” declared Vermont ACLU executive director James Lyall.
For many years, hundreds of Vermont prisoners have been held in other states, including in privately-operated prisons in Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Oklahoma, Arizona and Michigan.
South Carolina is also sending 48 prisoners to CoreCivic’s Tallahatchie facility, the state’s DOC announced in June 2018 – two months after the worst U.S. prison riot in a quarter-century broke out at the Lee Correctional Institution, leaving seven dead and 22 injured. [See: PLN, July 2018, p.14; May 2018, p.12].
The state’s DOC declined to say if any of the prisoners being transferred were involved in the riot, referring to the group only as “problematic.”
“It’s a better option than putting the shot callers and gang leaders in [solitary],” said former DOC Director Jim Ozmint. “It puts them in general population, but it takes them out of their criminal enterprise. It separates gang leaders from their ability to hurt people.”
Current South Carolina DOC Director Bryan P. Stirling said his agency had thought about shipping troublesome prisoners out of state before the riot. An executive order signed by the governor after the Lee disturbance cleared a path for the move.
DOC spokesman Dexter Lee said the state will pay CoreCivic $70 per diem, or over $1.2 million annually. The group of prisoners sent to Mississippi included at least two lifers – Christopher Moore, who murdered a Chester city council member in 2014, and Stanley Oliver, who killed three people in Richland County in 2005.
Sources: Billings Gazette, Burlington Free Press, Charleston Post and Courier, www.wyomingpublicmedia.org, www.kivitv.com, www.idahopress.com, www.kulr8.com, www.elnuevodia.com, www.azcentral.com, www.wistv.com, www.idahostatesman.com
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