Vermont to exit prisoner contract with Camp Hill due to ‘severe’ conditions

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Vermont is moving to end its current contract with Camp Hill prison in Pennsylvania, officials said on Thursday, following reports of deaths, abuse and poor treatment of Vermont inmates.

Secretary of Human Services Al Gobeille said the state will be putting out a request for proposal (RFP) “imminently” to identify prison operators willing to give Vermont more say in how its inmates are treated.

“Working through the compact [with Camp Hill] is something that there has been issues with, so we’re saying we don’t want to do it this way, we want to do an RFP and go back to a more precise, customized contract,” he said.

Gobeille said concerns about the well-being of the 262 prisoners at Camp Hill were among the motivations for seeking a new arrangement. “That’s part of it but not all of it,” he said.

“We’re not happy with how it’s going, so we’re looking for a better situation,” Gobeille said. As for the specific problems, he said there were “a lot of the things in the way that we communicate with inmates, the way they can communicate, the way their health care is delivered, the way the daily cycle is planned that we would prefer to have done in different ways.”

Inmates were moved to Camp Hill in June after GEO Group, a company that operates a private prison in Michigan, ended its contract with Vermont.

State Defender General Matt Valerio said Camp Hill had proven to be “far worse, far more severe” than other out-of-state prisons to which Vermont has sent its inmates in the past.

Valerio said that officials can only communicate with prisoners by letter, as telephone communication was not allowed — unlike previous prisons, most of which were privately run. Amid reports of deaths and poor health care, he said, Vermont officials had to increase visits to ensure that prisoners were receiving proper care. Inmates also complain that they are kept in cells 19 hours a day and not allowed the freedom to circulate that they had in private prisons.

“Camp Hill is a very different place than the private prisons we have dealt with in the past,” Valerio said. The Pennsylvania prison is a high security “intake” facility, meaning it is used as an evaluation point for new inmates before they are sent elsewhere in the state.

He described the management theory of Camp Hill officials as “we put the hammer down as means of maintaining control, and your comfort level or lack thereof is irrelevant. And that’s not something consistent with what Vermont inmates are used to.”

Valerio said Vermont had found the prison resistant to any change, as it was not obligated to do anything beyond what is in the current compact.

“A lot of the problem with Pennsylvania has to do with the lack of communication, access and responsiveness of Pennsylvania to Vermont,” he said.

“With medical stuff, there’s been some issues there, but what they are saying is ‘We’re treating your inmates the same as our inmates and if you want your inmates to be dealt with different, bring them back to Vermont and send somebody else,’” he said.

Over the course of two months late last year, three Vermont inmates died after serving time at Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, which prisoners’ rights advocates have faulted as lacking sufficient health care for inmates.

Prison rights advocates acknowledge that separating true reports from false ones is difficult. Claims of abuse from Vermont prisoners at Camp Hill range from reports of guards threatening to beat prisoners with belts, to refusing inmates needed medical care.

One prisoner, Roger Brown, was refused treatment as he was dying of lung cancer. At the end of his life, he was only given ibuprofen to relieve intense pain from tumors in his spine. Typically, pain associated with end stage lung cancer is treated with powerful opiates.

Pennsylvania officials maintain medical care at the prison meets community standards. Valerio said that might be true, but that doesn’t mean it meets Vermont standards.

“Was health care adequate? Maybe by Pennsylvania standards it was. Was the treatment adequate? It wouldn’t be consistent with what would happen in Vermont, but by Pennsylvania standards maybe it was,” he said.

Valerio said the decision by corrections Commissioner Lisa Menard to seek a new arrangement was not due to any particular problem or incident, but rather a buildup of displeasure with the situation.

“I don’t think that Lisa Menard has been happy with the transition from the beginning, but you try to work through problems,” he said. “But she’s at the point where we’re not seeing much movement.”

Menard said Vermont can leave Camp Hill without financial penalty as long as it gives six months’ notice. She said Pennsylvania was “aware that an intake facility is not working, from our perspective, to house long-term inmates.”

Until the prisoners are moved, or guaranteed better protections under a revised contract, Menard said she believed that their health and safety are being adequately looked after, both by Vermont officials visiting Camp Hill and officials in Pennsylvania.

“Concerns that have been brought forward alleging staff misconduct with enough detail to verify, have been addressed by Pennsylvania,” she said.

The Vermont Department of Corrections may in fact consider moving inmates from Camp Hill to another prison in Pennsylvania, Menard said.

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