This weekend, prisoner advocates, ex-prisoners, sympathetic citizens and some state lawmakers will gather in Burlington for a conference called Its About Time. Subtitled Bringing Justice to Vermont Prisons, the conference is aimed at promoting alternatives to incarceration, better reintegration of prisoners and recognizing the humanity of those behind bars.
The events begin with a Friday evening reception and video screening, followed by an all-day free conference on Saturday at the H.O. Wheeler School in Burlingtons Old North End. The keynote speaker is Sasha Abramsky, author of the new book, Hard Time Blues: How Politics Built a Prison Nation. Through the stories of prisoners and politicians, Abramskys book explores how the public has been conned into supporting mass incarceration, along with topics like the War on Drugs, SuperMax prisons and the devastating social repercussions.
Three rounds of workshops will follow Abramskys keynote talk. Topics include youth in crisis, mental-health issues, immigration and detention, custodial sexual misconduct, women in prison, solitary confinement and control units, race issues, privatization, rehabilitation alternatives, reintegration and civil liberties. Robert Meeropol, whose parents, the Rosenbergs, were executed during the McCarthy era, will also be on hand, helping to make connections between prisons, threats to freedom and the war on terrorism. Call 657-3733 for more information.
Twenty-five years ago, fewer than half a million people were behind bars in the U.S. Today, even though crime rates are still roughly the same, more than two million prisoners are doing hard time. Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom wont die. You know more severe punishment and longer sentences will reduce crime, or at least incapacitate some bad guys. Yes, some are truly dangerous. However, the sad truth is that most people in U.S. jails are nonviolent offenders and casualties of the War on Drugs incarcerated for possession, not the sale, of narcotics.
What do they experience while serving time? The U.N. calls American prisons brutal, uncomfortably like the hellish depictions we see in shows like the HBO series OZ. Human Rights Watch reports that many facilities are old, antiquated and physically decaying. Amnesty International points to the inhumanity of super-maximum security prisons, where inmates are locked up for 23 and a half hours a day, under extreme surveillance and control, with little opportunity for education and training.
But thats all somewhere else, right? Wrong. Vermont judges are handing out tougher sentences these days, the states jails are packed and the Department of Corrections keeps inmates locked up longer than it did a decade ago. For the last five years, DOC spending has been the fastest-growing part of the States budget, currently topping $75 million.
Recently, the focus has been on the states furlough program, the closing of the Woodstock jail and the expense of sending 37 percent of Vermont prisoners out of state the highest export rate in the country. But these arent Vermonts only prison woes. For example, many prisoners here suffer from mental health problems. Last summer, more than half the inmates in the St. Albans segregation wing had diagnosed psychiatric disabilities. As a result, many of them end up in solitary confinement.
Other shortcomings and warning signs:
Overcrowding. In Rutlands Marble Valley Regional Correct-ional Center, four inmates live in cells built for two. Calling that inhumane, inmates there are suing the State. At the perpetually overcrowded Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, single cells have become doubles, doubles have become triples, and half the gym is used as a dorm-like room. Meanwhile, DOC wants to move some prisoners held in Virginia into a similar dormitory setting as a cost-saving measure.
More incarcerated women and juveniles. The number of women prisoners has tripled since 1994, while the number of young people in adult facilities rose from 145 to 245 between 1998 and 2000 alone. Almost half of youths in jail are former special-education students, and only 5 percent are high school graduates. Can we call that progress?
A less-than-responsive DOC even when given direct instructions by the Legislature. For instance, a recent Vermont law encouraged a fair price for phone calls by prisoners. Yet some families, who must cover the costs, still pay 60 cents a minute for a long-distance call. This makes it unnecessarily difficult for some prisoners to stay in touch, an important aspect of rehabilitation. Prisoners also complain that policies are changed arbitrarily without any review, that health care is inadequate and that education and work opportunities are scarce.
No law barring sexual misconduct by staff even though 45 other states have taken action. The DOC addresses the problem internally, but faces resistance to pending legislation from the employees union.
Creeping privatization. The trend is already creating problems in the delivery of health and mental-health care. Probation services could be next. Meanwhile, the DOC commissioner supports sending Vermont inmates to private prisons elsewhere. From there, a private jail in Vermont is not inconceivable.
In other words, we still have a long way to go before our corrections system lives up its enlightened image. Good intentions and bureaucratic promises just arent enough. We need a thorough, ongoing look at whats really happening to those in jail, and to the thousands more who face serious barriers when they attempt to rejoin society. For Vermont, one solution may be to join other states that have established some form of effective independent oversight. Although legislation creating a citizens review board has previously passed in the State Senate, so far the House has declined to even discuss the idea. A promising new bill, H-241, still has a chance for a fair hearing during the current session.
Granted, oversight has the potential to become a political football, particularly when the governor appoints the members of a citizens review board. Even strong legislation is no panacea. On the other hand, information is a prerequisite for holding any institution accountable. Independent review of DOC activities can reduce litigation, highlighting problems before they become lawsuits, and prevent at least some of the worst abuses. Outside monitors also provide another avenue for employees who witness troubling practices and procedures, and help the Legislature ensure that conditions meet constitutional standards.
At least 11 states and cities in the U.S., plus the entire Canadian correctional system, have oversight groups in place. Two effective examples are the Correctional Association of New York State and the Pennsylvania Prison Society, both of which have made significant impacts on conditions. The New York group cant enforce standards, but does go into prisons, investigate complaints and report officially to the legislature.
Pennsylvanias independent nonprofit has a constant presence in every institution through a network of 300 volunteers, and meets periodically with top officials. When complaints arise, it has access to both prisoners and their records. As a result, the Pennsylvania DOC has reversed an old policy of locating prisoners far away from their homes, and also has implemented family-friendly programs. The Society itself provides bus services, and has forced the state to improve conditions in a notorious Secure Management Unit.
As Joe McGrath, deputy warden at Pelican Bay, a SuperMax prison in Northern California, once said: The average person out there in society isnt very concerned about the criminal. But they probably should be, since we now expect prisons to socialize people. There are a lot of things we need to be working on, McGrath added, to treat the illness rather than just the symptoms.
Maybe, by taking this good advice, Vermont can someday become part of the solution, rather than just a somewhat less egregious part of the problem.
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