A Tale of Two States: Washington and Vermont sign contracts to ship prisoners to Michigan

Two weeks ago we were disappointed to learn that both Washington state and Vermont awarded contracts to private prison corporation, GEO Group, to house overflow prisoners at the long-shuttered North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, MI.

This is concerning not only because of GEO’s particularly egregious history at the Baldwin private prison, but also because shipping prisoners out-of-state for profit is regressive and harmful criminal justice policy.

It allows state leaders to ignore root causes of prison overcrowding and delay desperately needed sustainable reform. Shipping prisoners far away severs critical ties to family and community, compounding the already devastating effects of isolation felt by people who experience incarceration. It places enormous emotional and financial burdens on the families and loved ones of those shipped away. All the while, private prison corporations rake in profits for every prison bed they can fill. 

We’re not the only ones unhappy about this. Although the Michigan legislature passed a bill that will allow GEO to house maximum security level prisoners (giving GEO more flexibility to fill the prison), opponents of the bill, according to reports, “labeled the move as risky profiteering and the first step in a hidden privatization agenda for Michigan’s corrections facilities.”

Opponents of the contract in Washington state are also speaking out, but there have been contradictory statements. When the contract was awarded, GEO Group released a statement saying, “the facility is expected to begin the intake process in the fourth quarter of 2015 with a gradual ramp over several months.” However, soon after Washington DOC Secretary Bernard Warner said, “There are no current plans to utilize the contract.” So, who’s bluffing?

According to a more recent report from the Seattle Times, Washington DOC forecasters expect to need 1,000 more prison beds by 2025, making the transfer of WA prisoners to Michigan sound much more likely. However, WA state Senator Jeannie Darneille believes the state has time to make sustainable policy changes that would alleviate prison overcrowding and keep the state from having to send any prisoners out-of-state. The senator is joined in her opposition by the Washington state ACLU and the Teamsters Local 117.

Will Washington utilize the contract with GEO and ship prisoners to Michigan, or will other state leaders heed Sen. Darneille's advice and act quickly to ensure they don’t head down the dangerous path of out-of-state transfers for profit? Contractually, they have a choice. Time will tell and we’ll be watching.

Now, let’s talk about Vermont.

Unlike Washington state, Vermont has consistently relied on out-of-state private prisons to alleviate overcrowded prisons at home for more than a decade. Despite its  decision to shift from private prison contractor, Corrections Corporation of America, to GEO Group in Michigan, Vermont is also moving  in a direction that could render its transfer policy obsolete. We’ve spent the past year supporting strong efforts on the ground in Vermont to elevate the voices of those impacted by this destructive policy and keep the pressure on the state to bring prisoners home. And, we will continue to fight.

The Vermont prison population is dropping and the out-of-state population dipped to 298, the lowest it’s been since 1999. And, though the contract has a two-year term, Vermont is not obligated to fill a minimum number of beds and can technically abandon the contract with a 180 day written notice. They can and should act quickly to continue making progress and end the policy of shipping prisoners out-of-state for good.

Stay tuned for updates!