Radio project probes out-of-state prisons

MIDDLEBURY — Currently there are more than 2,000 people serving time in jail for state crimes committed in Vermont. More than a quarter of that number are housed in prisons more than 1,000 miles from where their crimes took place.
Each year, between 550 and 600 Vermont prisoners are held in privately run jails in Tennessee and Kentucky.
Vermont is not alone in sending prisoners to private jails. According to a 2007 study, there are about 100,000 prisoners in private facilities across the country. But Vermont leads the way in this trend — the state sends prisoners to private facilities at the third highest rate in the country.
This summer, three Middlebury College students are producing a radio documentary on Vermont’s use of private out-of-state prisons.
The students explained that they wanted to look into the issue of Vermont’s growing out-of-state incarceration rates because they believe prisons are expensive and ineffective.
“In Vermont, we’re imprisoning double the amount of people we imprisoned in 1991 and yet crime is staying the same,” said Will Bellaimey, one of the students. “If the goal of these prisons is to protect the public, it’s not working. And it’s incredibly costly.”
Bellaimey, a senior from Minneapolis, teamed up with two juniors, Bianca Giaever and Aiden Arata, to win a grant in the Middlebury College Stonehenge idea competition. They will compile an hour-long piece excerpting from interviews with prisoners, their families and politicians.
In the four weeks that they’ve been working on the project, the students have interviewed a long list of people including former state Corrections Commissioner John Perry and Sen. Susan Bartlett, D–Lamoille County, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Already, they have come across strong opinions about private prisons. Former Corrections Directory of Planning John Perry told them “shipping the inmates out of state was the biggest mistake we ever made.”
Con Hogan, the former secretary of the Vermont Agency of Health and Human Services told the students, “Some of the (private) facilities are well run and pretty solid. Others have had chronic problems because these are programs for profit and when you build something for profit you often kind of cut corners in order to make that profit.”
The primary appeal of private prisons is that they save Vermont money. The students cited Department of Corrections data that found that the cost of keeping a prisoner in a Vermont state prison is about $50,000 a year — more than double the cost of private prisons. 
But the students argue that private prisons come with important external costs.
“One thing that adds to recidivism is not having a family or a community to answer to,” said Arata, who is from Los Angeles. “It’s a 10-hour drive to (the prisons in) Tennessee or Kentucky, and visiting hours are an hour long, once a week. This takes a toll on kids who grow up with incarcerated parents, and on the prisoners themselves who don’t have anyone to hold them accountable.”
In addition to their hour-long documentary, the students plan on pitching shorter segments of their project to Vermont Public Radio and other media outlets.
Now in its second year, the Middlebury College Stonehenge competition offers $3,000 grants in the categories of arts, environment, business and Vermont public policy.
Although Bellaimey, Arata and Giaever will focus on looking into private prisons, they don’t want to lose sight of the larger issue of growing incarceration rates.
“Instead of actually dealing with the problem of (high incarceration rates), and imprisoning less people, we just ship our prisoners away,” said Bellaimey. “If we didn’t have that safety valve, we’d be forced to build another prison. That would be such an expensive and insane endeavor, that we’d actually address the underlying issues.”
The students are interested in hearing from people who have been affected by private prisons and can be contacted at [email protected].
Reporter George Altshuler is at [email protected].

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