- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2004

NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Connecticut is barely 100 miles from end to end. Yet, when Barbara Fair and Anne McNamara want to visit their sons, they face a drive of eight or nine hours to a small Virginia town where 500 Connecticut men are imprisoned for lack of cells in their own state.

“It’s a big expense, but a necessary expense,” said Mrs. McNamara, whose son is serving 25 years for manslaughter. “If they can’t see the face of a loved one, and know they have support on the outside, what’s the incentive to behave, to learn, to work, to look for the day they can be free?”

Grueling and costly as the 500-mile trip from Connecticut to Jarratt, Va., can be, it is short compared with the distances separating some families that have inmate relatives.

Hawaii sends prisoners to Oklahoma; Alaska ships them to Arizona. Vermont has just signed a contract to house up to 700 inmates in private prisons in Kentucky and Tennessee.

In all, according to an Associated Press survey, 11 states export large numbers of their inmates a total of about 8,700 because of space shortages. In addition, the District, which has no prisons, has about 5,800 inmates scattered in federal and private prisons nationwide.

To governors and legislators, exporting inmates can be a tempting, low-cost alternative to building or expanding prisons. Private prisons which house most of the out-of-state inmates generally charge less per inmate than a state would pay to imprison them at home.

Some officials see the disruption in prisoners’ lives as their own fault: If they hadn’t committed crimes, they wouldn’t be in this position.

But for the inmates’ families, out-of-state transfers exacerbate the hardships caused by any incarceration. Mrs. Fair, for example, has three sons in prison for drug-related convictions, but says the pain of separation is felt most keenly by Keijam Tucker, her son in Virginia, because he rarely sees his three young daughters.

Even though most of the Connecticut inmates find the visitation and smoking policies more lenient in Jarratt than at Connecticut prisons, Tucker, 28, has requested a transfer back to his home state to no avail.

“He’d take the deplorable conditions here in Connecticut just to see his daughters,” said Mrs. Fair, 55, a social worker in New Haven. “They’re growing up without him.”

Mrs. Fair is a member of People Against Injustice, one of several groups lobbying Connecticut officials to end the out-of-state transfers. Activists say the state should reduce prison crowding through sentencing reforms and the option of treatment programs for nonviolent drug offenders.

Also lobbying against the transfer are unionized prison guards, who resent the concept of paying Virginians to confine Connecticut citizens.

The protests have failed. Instead, the legislature has authorized the transfer of up to 2,500 inmates out of state, up from the previous cap of 500.

State Rep. Robert Farr, ranking Republican on Connecticut’s House Judiciary Committee, said the out-of-state transfers save up to $10,000 per inmate while relieving crowding so severe that some inmates sleep on cots in hallways and cafeterias. These factors outweighed inconvenience for inmates’ relatives, he said.

“The public doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for prisoners,” Mr. Farr said. “Someone committed a murder and says, ‘Gee, I want to be closer to home.’ What about the family of the person they murdered?”

Stacy Smith, a spokeswoman for Connecticut’s Department of Corrections, said the transfers to Virginia are not punitive, and the selected inmates represent a cross section of offenders.

“The attitude of their families initially, there’s a shock, and then they acclimate,” Miss Smith said.

However, families that have adjusted to the trip to Virginia fear Connecticut eventually may make use of private prisons even farther away, following the example of Vermont.

Like Connecticut, Vermont has been housing 450 to 550 inmates at the Virginia state prison in Jarratt. However, on Jan. 2, Vermont officials announced a new contract replacing the deal with Virginia that soon will place up to 700 inmates in prisons in Kentucky and Tennessee run by the Corrections Corporation of America.

“It’s horrifying driving that distance would totally exhaust me,” said Vera Leblond of Craftsbury, Vt., whose son is in Virginia serving a 24- to 41-year sentence for sexual assault.

Vermont’s corrections commissioner, Steven Gold, said the state would like to get all its inmates back home eventually. The plan is to create space in existing prisons by placing more offenders in community-based programs.

“We recognize that when offenders are separated from their families and support systems, it has an impact on their current lives and their eventual re-entry,” he said.

Corrections Corporation of America is the nation’s largest private-prison operator, holding 55,000 inmates in 60 facilities in 20 states. Of the 8,700 state inmates housed outside their home states, more than 6,000 are in CCA prisons, sent there from Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Indiana, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

The other states exporting inmates for space reasons are Arizona and Kansas, to private prisons in Texas, and Washington, to a state prison in Nevada.

CCA Chief Executive Officer John Ferguson thinks out-of-state inmate transfers will be a fact of life as long as state governments face the twin dilemmas of crowded prisons and tight budgets.

“Every state would love to have the right amount of bed space within their jurisdiction,” he said in a telephone interview from his Nashville, Tenn., headquarters. “But they have choices they have to make obligations like education, health care.”

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