MONTPELIER -- In the wake of a September riot, four Vermont inmates incarcerated in Kentucky outlined for a joint-house committee on Wednesday a list of grievances that pushed the southern jail's population to the breaking point.
Talking from Kentucky by speakerphone, the inmates, one of whom is from Bennington, cited "unprofessional" staff, unwarranted time in solitary confinement and poor living conditions among the reasons inmates rioted on Sept. 14, setting fires and damaging the prison.
Speaking from the Lee Adjustment Center in Beattyville, Ky., the four detailed a tumultuous life far from family and friends.
"We're already getting put in the 'hole' for absolutely nothing," inmate Scott Amidon, 30, said during the 45-minute speakerphone call with the Legislature's Corrections Oversight Committee. "For standing around a table with four chairs. Unacceptable."
But the inmates reported improvements since the riot, which they said was pre-planned and staged more as a demonstration. They were hopeful, they said, about a new warden at the jail.
"It does seem to come together a lot more under the new warden," said inmate Dennis Chandler, 38, a Swanton resident who was sentenced in Bennington County for kidnapping and aggravated sexual assault. He is serving 25 to 60 years in jail.
"We need to have some attention," one of the prisoners said, emphasizing that prisoner intent during the riot was to see nobody hurt. The riot was set off after "a lot of bogus, petty" solitary confinement "for nothing," Amidon said.
It is unclear whether any of the four who spoke to the committee are being investigated in association with the riot.
"I wouldn't be surprised if I got locked up just for the comments I made to you about the riot," inmate David Rivers, 32, said. Vermont Commissioner of Corrections Stephen Gold was planning on a call to Kentucky to be sure that none of the inmates interviewed were reprimanded for speaking up, according to Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the committee. Rep. Al Krawczyk, R-Bennington, also sits on the eight-member committee, which was formed four years ago.
Amidon, Chandler, Rivers and Bennington resident Lonny Campbell, 26, also told the committee about the stigma of being a Vermonter jailed in the south. Up to 15 Vermont inmates were scheduled to appear before a Kentucky grand jury on Tuesday, facing possible indictments related to the riot.
"We're looked at as the hillbillies from Vermont," Rivers said, adding that Vermonters there are often labeled as racists from an "all-white" state. Still, the inmates did say racial tensions are less stressed than when they were previously incarcerated in Virginia.
Facing overcrowding in the state's minimal jail space, Vermont has sent 413 of its inmates to Kentucky. Forty-six of those were sentenced in Bennington County. Another 25 from the state are incarcerated in Arizona.
The Lee Adjustment Center is run by Corrections Corporations of America, a private contractor that the state is paying to handle the excess load of inmates. The company replaced its warden there after the riots and Vermont legislators have taken a more particular interest in what happens down South.
"We ran out of options and CCA is really the option we have," Sears told the inmates, who said the ideal correction to their woes would be to bring them back to jails in Vermont. The company is working with Gold and his staff, according to a company representative.
"It's an ongoing basis," he said. "What works, what isn't working and talk about some changes."
In discussion after the call, Rep. Martha Heath, D-Westford, said she found the inmates' description of poor education opportunities in the jail "disturbing." Vermont's contract with Corrections Corportation of America calls for the company to provide education adequate to help inmates achieve a Graduate Equivalency Diploma, according to Gold.
Krawczyk had concerns also, namely that the inmates reported poorly trained correctional officers and a lack of continuity in discipline rules from one guard shift to another. Guards will often "make up things as they please," Amidon said.
The inmates also complained of being made to wait, single-file, in the rain as they go into the building. Bunkrooms sleeping 200 men have chairs for only 32 people to sit during recreation time. Krawczyk said that, too, should be fixed.
The inmates also said family rarely visited, although they had adequate access to phones. Complaints to Vermont Department of Corrections representatives often went nowhere, they said.
"It seems like you're sending off information and concerns into the wild blue," Rivers said.
But Vermont officials will see every grievance filed by one of the state's inmates, according to Department of Corrections Director of Classification Ray Flum. Prior to the riot "very limited grievances would come to us out of state," Flum said. But now, even a complaint about the food will show up on his desk, he said.
In addition, Gold said that a permanent Vermont liaison, as well as more caseworkers, would be moved to Kentucky as a point of contact for Vermont's prisoners there.
"Hopefully, they'll come with answers too," Rivers said. "That would be nice."
The inmates were also upset that they could be kept in solitary confinement for up to 60 days while it was decided if an official reprimand would take place. In Vermont, they said, they could only be held for 32 hours.
Campbell, who was sentenced in Bennington to up to 10 years for sexual assault, said he recently spent an entire month "in the hole," only to not be "charged" with anything. Upon coming out, he said, it was hard to get back in good standing.
"How am I gonna get any good time for this month here?" he asked the commission.
Gold briefed the commission on his department's work toward eventually solving the broader problem of prison overcrowding. He outlined five possible remedies: work camps, electronic surveillance bracelets, transitional housing, job training and substance abuse treatment. The pros and cons of both are being considered, he said.
Vermont has 1,958 prisoners, according to documents from the Department of Corrections. More than 10 percent of those are from Bennington County, although the county is only about 6 percent of the state's population.
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