An effort to learn more about the workings of a private prison company that houses 600 Vermont inmates scored a key legal victory last week.
A Montpelier judge rejected a request by Corrections Corporation of America, which has been paid more than $70 million by the state since 2007, to dismiss a lawsuit that seeks to access records of its operations.
CCA had argued that since it is a private company, it should not be subject to Vermont's public records law, which generally allows citizens to access records of government operations. The Vermont Department of Corrections, which has long grappled with a shortage of prison beds, sends long-term inmates to a CCA prison in Kentucky, among other prisons the company controls across the country.
A lawsuit seeking access to CCA records was filed by Prison Legal News, a monthly publication that has reported extensively about the private prison industry.
Prison Legal News sought records concerning the conditions inside the private prisons where Vermonters are housed, but its request in September 2012 was ignored by CCA, according to court records. In May 2013, Prison Legal News filed suit in Washington Superior Court in Montpelier, arguing that CCA should be subject to the same disclosure requirements as the Department of Corrections and other state agencies.
The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents Prison Legal News, said it was encouraged by the judge's decision.
“For the Vermonters who are under lock and key in Tennessee and Kentucky, CCA is interchangeable with the Department of Corrections,” said ACLU staff attorney Dan Barrett. “We, the public, should know how our state’s prisoners are being treated on our behalf in privately-run facilities."
The case will continue: Records still have not been turned over, and the judge has ordered further hearings.
But Prison Legal News editor Paul Wright said he is optimistic.
“We think it’s a matter of common sense to treat the state’s private jailer as the functional equivalent of the Department of Corrections," Wright said.