CCA officials from left, Daniel Kaman and Kevin Myers, talk to Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) during a Joint Legislative Corrections Oversight Committee meeting.
A series of assaults last year inside a Kentucky prison that houses 400 Vermonters stemmed from a culture of drug use that involved prison guards and inmates, officials from the company that runs the prison said today.
Representatives from the Corrections Corporation of America made a rare appearance in Vermont, testifying before the Joint Legislative Corrections Oversight Committee. The told the committee they have made improvements since a series of violent incidents inside Lee Adjustment Center last year alarmed Vermont officials. However, CCA officials faced sharp questions from lawmakers about their staffing levels and security measures.
CCA managing director of operations Kevin Myers said that a spate of violent assaults last winter that eventually led to a weeks-long lockdown arose from “culmination of a lot of things coming together at one time.”
The prison received two batches of new Vermont inmates in October 2013, Myers said, including, “a lot of people from New York and the Bronx that had been arrested before.” Those inmates were brought into a prison where a network of buying and selling drugs was already established, Myers said, and only made things worse.
“When they got to Lee Adjustment Center, we had a system where people there were dependent on drugs, and those [new] people maximized that opportunity and took advantage of that opportunity," Myers said.
Drugs often entered the prison through the mail, Myers said.
In response to those troubles, CCA says it replaced Lee Adjustment Center's warden and took other steps that it says have made the prison safer.
They added a dozen staffers, so that five more guards could be on duty and monitor individual housing blocks. Previously, Myers said, the prison did not have guards inside individual housing blocks — a guard monitoring control-room video feeds was the only constant presence.
Myers said prison officials are also more vigilant about monitoring inmate phone calls, which have always been recorded, and have curtailed freedom of movement for inmates.
Challenges remain. Annual turnover among guards at Lee Adjustment Center is around 25 percent, though some of that is due to "people we terminated because we were finding out they were part of the problem, they were introducing some of the drugs," Myers said.
The starting wage for guards there is $8.35 an hour, above Kentucky’s $7.23 minimum wage, CCA officials said under questioning from lawmakers. (Vermont’s minimum wage is $8.73, but is scheduled to rise to $10.50 by 2018.)
CCA's testimony, the company's first in Vermont in a decade, comes as state officials are increasingly focused on reducing Vermont's inmate population. The state has 1,600 prison beds but 2,100 inmates, forcing it to spend more than $30 million in the past two years for extra space in CCA's prisons.
DOC's most recent two-year contract with CCA expires in July, and DOC is currently soliciting bids for a new contract. Bids are due on Thursday, and it is expected that CCA will apply.
Lee Adjustment Center is populated entirely by Vermonters. Florence Correctional Facility, a CCA prison in Arizona, houses 30 Vermonters who have had disciplinary problems at other prisons.
Some committee members voiced frustration that they had not been notified by CCA or DOC of that incident. DOC Commissioner Andy Pallito apologized.
However, none of the lawmakers asked for updates on the situation. In an interview after the hearing, Myers said that CCA has begun moving the inmates placed in solitary confinement and expected them all to return to the general prison population shortly.
Rep. Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the assaults and CCA's response suggested the company is unwilling to hire enough guards to guarantee safety. Lippert mentioned a $1 million settlement CCA paid Idaho this year to settle allegations that it understaffed a prison and that its employees falsified staffing records to mask security shortcomings.
“Are we getting adequate staffing? It suggests in retrospect maybe the staffing wasn’t adequate," Lippert said. "It does come down to what you contract for. You get what you contract for, I guess.”
In an unusual exchange early in the meeting, Myers said that he believed people who hail from other states and are arrested in Vermont cause more problems behind bars than native Vermonters.
"There are a lot of challenging things that come through the state from New York, Massachusetts," Myers said. "People that come from out of state, creating problems for you and your state.”
In fact, Myers said, it was obvious upon brief interactions which inmates were and weren't from Vermont .
Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) asked Myers how he could differentiate the Vermont natives from the transplants, jokingly wondering if he could tell which lawmakers on the committee were born in Vermont.
“As I walk through the facility, a lot of offenders walk up to me and they’re very kind and respectful, that kind of thing," Myers said. "You can tell they’re more of a rural type. Others come out of the Bronx and other types of areas. They’re gangsters. You can tell the ... Vermonters, and those who aren’t.”