- Thomas James
Vermont inmates housed at Pennsylvania's Camp Hill state prison say guards are mistreating them and threatening retaliation when they report abuse. Vermont officials, limited by distance and the legal agreement between the two states, have little power to intervene.
Kirk Wool, a Vermont inmate serving time at Camp Hill for kidnapping and aggravated sexual assault, documented what he alleged are exact quotes from a corrections officer on November 20.
"You motherfuckers run your mouth, I'll end it. I swear," the officer told a group of Vermont inmates, according to Wool. He reported the guard's behavior to prison officials. The officer returned to Wool's cell the next day. "You like to press charges; call the police," Wool recounted the officer saying. "Make sure you spell my name right."
The incident convinced Wool that staff members receiving reports of mistreatment are relaying those complaints — and the identities of the inmates making them — to guards, he wrote to the facility's superintendent. Wool provided a copy of his complaint to Seven Days.
Because of the geographic distance, and because Pennsylvania limits inmates' ability to communicate, Seven Days and prisoner advocates have been unable to verify inmates' claims. Nevertheless, some lawmakers and activists are aware of the allegations and are concerned about Vermont's ability to keep Camp Hill inmates safe.
Sending prisoners out of state isn't new. Vermont has been doing it for more than a decade. Currently, the state has a $21 million, three-year deal with Pennsylvania to house more than 200 Vermonters at Camp Hill. Under the agreement, the inmates are officially in the care of Pennsylvania's Department of Corrections and its laws and policies. Unlike past housing arrangements with private contractors, Vermont no longer makes the rules for how guards treat its out-of-state inmates.
That puts Pennsylvania in charge of holding guards accountable for the way prisoners are treated. Inmates such as Wool have reported both threats and intimidation.
In a letter to Seven Days, inmate Jabbar Chandler said he was distraught when he learned that his friend, 62-year-old Herbert Rodgers — whom Chandler affectionately referred to as "Grandpa" — had died in December. Rodgers was the third Vermonter to die after being transferred to Camp Hill. Roger Brown, 68, died of metastatic cancer in October, and Tim Adams, 59, died the following month shortly after he was transferred back to Vermont from the Pennsylvania facility.
Chandler recalled how he loudly declared that he'd tell the media about the way Rodgers was treated in the final days of his life. Officers responded, Chandler wrote, by warning him, "That wouldn't be smart" and mentioning that there could be "consequences" for contacting the media.
Other inmates have reported threats to the advocacy group Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform.
"It is to the level where people say they're afraid that they will be killed," said Tom Dalton, the group's executive director. "Whether that's a reasonable threat, I don't know, but the fact that somebody feels that way is certainly a red flag."
Inmates have also written to elected officials. Rep. David Yacovone (D-Morristown) said he plans to question Vermont Corrections Commissioner Lisa Menard when she appears before the House Appropriations Committee to discuss the department's budget.
"I try to think [about] if I were a mom or dad [and] that was my son," Yacovone said. "I'd want to know that I could count on the system to tell me what was just and what was right.
"Two [inmates] outright said, 'I have to be careful, Dave, what I say to you because of retaliation from the officers,'" Yacovone continued. "No one saying specifically, 'I was abused or violated by an officer,' but there's this intimidation — threats that I guess were verbal."
More than five inmates at Camp Hill have complained to Dalton and his staff about threats or other forms of mistreatment by guards.
"Somebody said that two officers had dragged them off to an area off-camera, grabbed them by the shirt and lifted them off the ground," Dalton said.
Dalton said he's been unable to verify the complaints. "I can drive to a correctional facility in Vermont and meet with somebody and talk to them," he said. "I can't do that in Pennsylvania."
The potential for retaliation makes inmates wary of their communications, which can be monitored, Dalton said.
"There seems to be a certain level of fear and paranoia that's not normal and that we don't usually see [inmates] talk about," Dalton said, noting that some inmates call the prison "Camp Hell."
Because of limited phone access, Camp Hill inmates rely mostly on letters and a pay-per-message online system similar to email. In letters to Seven Days, three inmates detailed threats they say corrections officials have made since mid-December.
Vermont's deputy corrections commissioner, Mike Touchette, told the House Corrections and Institutions Committee on January 9 that budgetary concerns restrict Vermont's ability to force Pennsylvania to change conditions for Vermonters.
"The more demands we place on the receiving state to provide services or follow our policies and procedures, it requires additional staffing, which drives the price up," he said.
Prison officials in both states said systems are in place to address problems like the ones inmates are alleging, and they expressed frustration that inmates are going public instead of using proper channels to air their grievances.
"One of the common themes is '[Corrections officers] are threatening us,'" Touchette said. "Well, OK, tell us more about that."
Without details such as the names of officers or the circumstances of the threats, not much can be done, Touchette said, adding that inmates should use the Pennsylvania prison's official grievance process. That generates a record of the complaint and officials' response, allowing Vermont officials to check to ensure prisoner concerns are appropriately handled.
Asked about threats of retaliation against inmates, Touchette said he is aware of those reports but hasn't learned of any cases in which guards followed through on their warnings.
Pennsylvania officials refused to comment on the specific allegations sent to Seven Days.
"The DOC will not conduct its grievance process through the media, nor does it provide any information regarding investigations," Pennsylvania DOC press secretary Amy Worden wrote in an email. "We can say that the safety and security of staff and inmates is at the core of the DOC mission, and the agency works every day to maintain that goal. Additionally, the PA DOC is in regular contact with the Vermont DOC regarding their inmates."
With Pennsylvania's DOC unwilling to discuss the allegations and Vermont officials deferring to Pennsylvania on guard conduct, there is no way for advocates, the press or the public to know how the guards are treating — or mistreating — the Vermont inmates assigned to their care.
"I'm concerned," Yacovone said of the inmate reports, "but it's very hard for me to verify."