Jim Kenyon: For-profit prison sees Vermont inmates nickel-and-dimed while doing time


Valley News Columnist

Published: 08-14-2023 9:57 PM

I never thought a price tag could be put on reading, but the Vermont Department of Corrections has found a way.

On Aug. 1, the DOC implemented a policy change that in upcoming months will increase the cost of purchasing new books, among other items, by a whopping 30% for the 125 inmates the state currently has locked up at a private prison in Tutwiler, Miss.

A tax on reading, which is what it amounts to, defies logic.

“I would wholeheartedly agree that any barrier to accessing books is problematic,” Annie Manhardt, supervising attorney with Vermont’s Prisoners’ Rights Office, told me via email. “Prison offers so few opportunities for folks to occupy their minds. It is alarming to think that the few outlets that exist (which are already cost-prohibitive to many people) could become even more scarce.”

For inmates such as David Denny, of Rutland, coming up with extra money to pay for science fiction novels, a favorite genre, not carried in the prison library won’t be easy. His prison job — mopping and sweeping floors — pays 45 cents an hour.

“I draw a lot, too,” Denny told me last week in a phone interview. Art supplies are going up as well.

Hoping to learn what was driving the price-gouging scheme (I don’t know what else to call it), I recently made a public records request. CoreCivic, the for-profit prison company that operates Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility, informed Vermont DOC officials that the state needed to eliminate a deficit in the prison’s so-called “inmate welfare fund,” documents showed.

CoreCivic, the largest U.S. private prison contractor, didn’t reveal how deep the fund is in the red. Echo Prescott, CoreCivic’s facility controller at Tallahatchie, declined to comment when I called her Friday.

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The fund is used to pay for recreation equipment and services, including cable TV. In a prison that offers little in terms of job training and educational opportunities, I’d argue the state or CoreCivic should pick up the tab for any activities that occupies inmates’ time.

Along with books, it appears the 30% “mark-up” extends from video games and gaming consoles to essentials such as toothbrushes and boxer briefs.

To get more details, I figured it would help to talk with DOC officials who deal directly with out-of-state inmates, but my interview request was denied.

On Friday, I received an email from Isaac Dayno, the department’s policy director. “Like with in-state facilities, Vermont DOC’s out-of-state facility has traditionally relied on a commissary fee to support the inmate welfare fund,” he wrote. “However, unlike those residing in-state, incarcerated individuals at the out-of-state facility could also order from vendors not subject to this fee. Over time, this caused the out-of-state welfare fund to fall into a negative cash balance.”

CoreCivic has assured inmates that the company “does not get any money or kickbacks” from commissary sales, according to a June 22 memo.

To ease overcrowding at home and save a few bucks along the way, Vermont has dumped inmates in other states for 25 years. Currently, more than 1,200 men and women are also behind bars in six in-state prisons.

Vermont is well-known for being among the country’s most progressive states, but its liberal bent has never stretched to the treatment of inmates and their families. Making it harder for men who have so little going for them to read more is just another example.

“Even in the most progressive states, there’s a fear that incarcerated people can become too smart for their own good,” said Wanda Bertram, spokeswoman for the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative.

Corrections officials can be “afraid of people becoming too empowered and building up too much of an independent spirit while in prison,” she said.

Many elected officials and other Vermonters fail to take into account that a lot of the men incarcerated in Mississippi will eventually be freed. (Nationally, 95% of state prisoners return to the streets.)

Eric Daley, of Springfield, Vt., is one of them. Since pleading guilty in 2003 to charges related to a high-speed chase that resulted in the death of Vermont State Police Trooper Michael Johnson, of Bradford, Vt., Daley has spent much of the last 20 years in out-of-state prisons. Daley, 43, is scheduled to get out in 2028, according to DOC’s website.

The Mississippi prison, which Vermont began using in 2018, serves as a human warehouse — 1,400 miles from home.

Daley’s mother, Linda Hopkins, and friends try to make his life better by ordering him books online at Barnes & Noble, which was allowed to ship directly to the prison until this month.

“I’ve noticed his vocabulary is better and his intellectual curiosity has improved,” said James Dwinell, who began buying books for Daley and having phone conversations with him after taking an interest in his case years ago.

“He’s more in touch with the world,” added Dwinell, a retired political consultant who lives in Randolph.

Dwinell shared Daley’s story with Martha Hill, of Weybridge, Vt. She’s bought Daley numerous books, including a pair of novels based on the life of Gregory David Roberts, an Australian author, and set mostly in India. “Shantaram” and its sequel, “The Mountain Shadow,” are both more than 900 pages.

“I never would have picked them up on my own,” Daley told me. “They’re eye-opening and mind-opening.”

“I’m always looking for something that is well-written and will absorb him,” said Hill, a Middlebury College graduate who worked in a bookstore while living for many years in Germany.

Going forward, purchasing books won’t be as simple as ordering online. Family and friends must wire money to inmates who can then buy books — at a higher cost — through the prison’s commissary.

If it leads to Vermonters reading less before they leave prison, that can’t be good.

We could all end up paying.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.