The Scott administration has been scurrying around to find a place to relocate the approximately 260 inmates currently held in Michigan at GEO Group’s for-profit private prison. In late 2016 GEO Group unexpectedly canceled its extension option on a multi-year contract to house Vermont prisoners and set a June deadline for their removal. Governor Scott didn’t pursue in-state alternatives he claims would cost more. It’s all about bottom-line GOP budgeting priorities: “The reality is it’s a lot less costly to have some out of state,” Scott said as a candidate.
Details about a new deal Governor Scott is reportedly arranging with the Pennsylvania state prison system are scant to say the least. According to Vtdigger.com, Secretary of Human Services Al Gobeille will only say that the administration is “very close” to a deal with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. An official from the PA Dept of Corrections did confirm they may soon house the Vermont prisoners but nothing is finalized. Pennsylvania Corrections regularly charges $72.00 per day cost for out-of state prisoners. That’s about $10.00 more than soon to end $61.80 per day fee GEO Group now charges to Vermont .
Whatever details eventually emerge about the Pennsylvania prison inmate housing deal, a quick look at news reports about the state system of is hardly reassuring for anyone concerned. For a period of years that state’s department of corrections has been undergoing major budget and staff cuts. The state is still suffering severe budget problems; this year, reductions under consideration in the Pennsylvania house, if enacted, would put about 1,500 state employees out of work, with prisons in line for the deepest job cuts. The administration produced an internal budget office analysis that indicated nearly 650 layoffs would occur at the Department of Corrections.
Should those new layoffs and cuts come to pass, it will be on top of existing chronic problems — including prisons operating well over capacity, with overcrowding exacerbated by previous years of budget cuts and staff reductions. To save costs two PA state prisons are slated to be closed in 2017. Officially they will be “mothballed,” dislocating and consolidating almost 2,500 inmates into other Pennsylvania prisons. The closings mean the Pennsylvania system will be operating at what is called “emergency” capacity levels. Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said, “It’s not ideal,” and by way of defending the action, he explains Pennsylvania is far from the worst state when it comes to overcrowding. There is speculation — by PA officials desperate for any revenue — that the newly “mothballed” prison facilities might be profitably put to use as suitable housing for low-risk federal immigration detainees from Trump’s aggressive immigration actions.
With the PA system under major budget stresses engagement by prison social workers, medical, or counseling staff are apt to be minimal to the extent they are provided for out-of-state prisoners. However, for families of Vermont inmate families who want to visit the travel distance may be an improvement of a kind. From Burlington to GEO’s North Lake Correction Facility is over 800 miles and to Pittsburgh, in the western corner of Pennsylvania is under 600 miles.
The snapshot of Pennsylvania’s prisons that emerges from these recent news reports is one of a system struggling under severe budget constraints and perhaps understaffed. The June deadline to move Vermont’s 260 inmates from Michigan is approaching fast: it is time for some details about what kind of “bargain” deal budget-conscious Governor Scott may think he’s arranged with Pennsylvania.