A worrisome visit to Camp Hill
By Anna Stevens, outreach director
Up until last week, 269 Vt. prisoners were residing in North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan, the sole residents of the prison. On Sunday, June 11th, these men were moved 682 miles to SCI Camp Hill, Pennsylvania’s largest correctional facility with 3,620 prisoners. Some men were transported by plane. Some men were transported by bus, which in the past has resulted in a slew of horror stories describing “cages” and “bloody handcuffs.”
I had seen SCI Camp Hill just days before.
Pennsylvania Department of Corrections invited Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform to visit, and I as outreach director and Jay Craven of VtDigger were given a two-and-a-half-hour tour of the 52-acre facility by the prison’s administrative team. They explained the process: Upon arrival, the new Vermont prisoners would shower, provide a urinary analysis, and receive their box of property (assuming all contents were permissible), an ID card (the first of which is free), one envelope and stamp to write home (calls and email wouldn’t be available for 1-2 weeks after in-take) and a mandatory outfit. 252 of the 269 men would move into J-unit, limited to Vermonters. Though it reeks of tobacco, at least it would enable the familiarity of known company. And that’s what happened.
But what about the other 17 men? They would be—they are now—somewhere else within this huge prison. They may be in segregation, in a mental health unit, or among the “general population.” This is unacceptable. At least 17 men must be returned to Vermont immediately, to spaces made available by releasing 17 men currently incarcerated unnecessarily (e.g. held for lack of approved housing, lack of bail, or for a technical violation of conditions). This is urgent.
While at Camp Hill, I had many concerns about the wellbeing of all Vermont prisoners there. How would they fare in a prison more than double the size of Vermont’s entire incarcerated population? Would they be subject to the known gang violence? How would those without a job or money coming from the outside manage the new co-pays for medical and dental care? I left worried. Here are some of my main concerns:
In fairness, SCI Camp Hill is trying to decrease the use of its 155 segregation beds. Segregation typically means solitary confinement, but Camp Hill's "seg" cells are shared, meaning up to two people can be locked in the closet-sized quarters for 23 hours a day. There are two reasons one can land in the seg unit: administrative segregation (often for security reasons) or disciplinary segregation. The administrative team explained to me that cell-mates are matched in accordance with the reasoning for their placement there. Simply put, someone who’s there for administrative seg won’t be placed with someone who’s there for disciplinary seg. While this is good news, it doesn’t address the likely scenario in which two men who have both received a major disciplinary report are required to co-habitate. Needless to say, evidence and common sense discourage such pairings. Having seen the cells, I would, too.
The administrative team touted a wide array of programming and entertainment for the nearly 4,000 prisoners, everything from finance classes to basketball tournaments. However, when asked what the Vt. men would have access to, I was repeatedly told that it would depend on availability. When I asked about employment opportunities, I was told the same thing. The contract between Vt. corrections and Penn. corrections specifically notes that Penn. corrections is not responsible for re-entry programing. We can only hope there will be “availability” of some of the entertainment and educational programming.
Needs and resources
Article XIV of the contract reads, “Upon delivery of an inmate, the receiving state shall do the following or ensure that the following is done: confine the inmate; give the inmate care and treatment, including the furnishing of subsistence and all necessary medical and hospital services and supplies; provide for the inmate’s physical needs; make available to the inmate training and treatment programs consistent with the inmate’s needs and the receiving state’s resources [emphasis added]; retain the inmate in safe custody; supervise the inmate; maintain proper discipline and control over the inmate; make certain the inmate receives no special privileges; and faithfully execute the sentences and orders of the committing court in the sending state.”
During the eight-hour drive back to Vt. I was baffled by the state’s lack of concern with a contract that makes meeting the inmate’s needs dependent on the receiving state’s resources. It makes sense on the surface, but it’s an obvious excuse for providing little to nothing. It’s not that SCI Camp Hill is the worst-case scenario. The library had abundant books and even had windows. There’s an on-site dentist. The array of worship services exceeds that of Vt. facilities tenfold. What was baffling to me was the notion that this city of prisoners shuffling among 44 buildings could ever find the “care and treatment” the contract promises. Prison was not designed to offer “care and treatment… consistent with the inmate’s needs.” Penn. corrections will inevitably fall short. And when it does, Vt. prisoners will fill a complaint with Penn. corrections. The complaint will work its way up the grievance process, and eventually, as promised by the administrative team, Vt. corrections will be notified. Then what?
The contract requires Vermont to pay for 250-400 beds for the next three years, but it includes a clause that allows withdrawal with six months’ notice. We need to withdraw from the contract. We must start now and be done in six months. We shouldn’t be outsourcing incarceration in the first place. Sending men out of state isn’t making our communities safer, and sending state resources to Pennsylvania means less investment in our communities. We can easily open up 250 beds in six months. (See our proposal to end unnecessary incarceration.) In the meantime, we must call on the governor to take immediate action to bring home 17 men today.