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Core Civic’s Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Mississippi, where approximately 300 Vermont inmates are incarcerated.

Voices / Viewpoint

Vermont’s embrace of prisons-for-profit is a travesty and a disgrace

The governor has shown some sensitivity to Black Lives Matter concerns, but his blithely shipping Black prisoners out of state is racist

Dan DeWalt, one of the founders of this newspaper, is a woodworker and teacher at Leland & Gray Union High School. He is a longtime activist for social justice, clean energy, and peace.

Newfane

The reckless disregard for Vermont prisoners by the Scott administration not only is a travesty and disgrace, it is also a sign of systemic white supremacy that is at play — apparently, without the administration even noticing.

Core Civic, with which the state has contracted to imprison Vermonters convicted of crimes, has failed miserably to do due diligence in its custodial care of human beings. COVID-19 has swept through its facility in Mississippi and poses a grave risk to scores of Vermont inmates.

Yet, James Baker, commissioner of public safety, has indicated that he is prepared to renew Core Civic’s contract with the state for at least another year, starting in October, and the governor has not voiced any objection — if he has even noticed.

The briefest internet search reveals that Core Civic is a troubled company that has been condemned and admonished in investigation after investigation, whether by state entities or investigative reporters.

In fact, Core Civic is a new name created to try to hide the company’s past despicable record of abuse when it called itself the Corrections Corporation of America.

* * *

It was inexcusable that our state originally decided to abrogate our responsibility for our own prisoners, but it is even worse to now continue that contract when the facts about abuse and mismanagement at Core Civic are now common public knowledge.

But perhaps the most pernicious aspect of our state’s failure to house our own prisoners is the administration’s complete lack of understanding of the special jeopardy that some prisoners face in the Core Civic prisons-for-profit system.

Our state, due to biased policing and a biased court system, already incarcerates Black Vermonters at a rate highly disproportionate to their numbers. And, of the number of prisoners who have been moved to Mississippi, an even higher proportion of them are Black than is representative of those locked into the Vermont prison population.

* * *

Baker and Scott apparently haven’t had the interest or time to investigate just what fate awaits our prisoners, especially prisoners of color, as they are shipped off to the deep South.

Core Civic has been cited in multiple instances for sexual abuse of prisoners, for racist conduct, for brutalizing and dehumanizing policies, and for guards who regularly inflict cruel and unusual punishment.

Scott and Baker haven’t considered the extra risk this poses to Black inmates? They haven’t even considered the injustice of the skewed numbers of Black prisoners we have in the first place? They are willing to continue this injustice and magnify it by sending these Vermonters to a hotbed of racism and coercive control?

The governor has shown some sensitivity to the Black Lives Matter concerns. He has supported people’s right to demonstrate and has made some admirable statements about the value of every person in this country.

But his blithely shipping Black prisoners to a dangerous institution where racism runs freely is a racist policy.

It doesn’t really matter if the governor is not a racist if his policies continue the white supremacist paradigm that targets people of color and leaves them, once again, as second-class citizens — more susceptible to abuse, sickness and death than their white counterparts.

* * *

The only just act that Scott can do is to bring all of the prisoners home.

He always talks about what we cannot afford. It’s asking too much of Vermonters to pay for more prison beds. It’s too much to ask Vermonters to rethink whom we incarcerate and why we incarcerate them. It’s too much to really face the consequences of perpetuating a white supremacist system.

But it’s just fine to subject Black Vermonters to extra danger, to extra stress, and to the extra risk of coming home in a box?

We can no longer allow these sorts of calculations to go unquestioned. No longer can Black bodies pay the price of white bodies’ stinginess and callous disregard. It is time for all white bodies to say, No more. We will not be part of daily systemic racist policies that put our brothers and sisters of color at risk.

Governor Scott has the ability to make a dramatic change in the status of our oppressed Black inmates.

Does he care enough to act?

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Originally published in The Commons issue #579 (Wednesday, September 16, 2020). This story appeared on page C1.

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