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A legislative posse makes the prison rounds

Published February 16, 2005 at 9:20 p.m.

The weather is cold and miserable as our group of eight state senators -- seven Democrats and one Republican -- and two reporters leaves the Statehouse for a tour of three drug-treatment and correctional facilities. The trip, organized by Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Sears and Senate President Pro Tem Peter Welch, was part of a legislative effort to "connect the dots" and see what's broken in Vermont's correctional system. Going in, the senators know what the picture looks like, and it's not pretty.

Over the last decade, Vermont's incarceration rate has more than doubled, while the cost of housing and supervising inmates has increased fourfold. Between 2002 and 2003, Vermont put more people behind bars, per capita, than any state in the nation, including Louisiana and Texas. At this rate, Vermont will need to build three, 350-bed prisons over the next six years, at a cost of nearly $100 million, just to keep pace. Faced with such gloomy predictions, these lawmakers -- members of the Senate Judiciary, Appropriations or Health and Welfare committees -- are on this trip, in part, to try to identify less expensive alternatives.

Our first stop on the tour is Valley Vista, Vermont's new, $6.1 million substance-abuse treatment center in Bradford, which just opened in August. The center has an 18-bed adolescent unit that is scheduled to open in two weeks. No one doubts those beds will fill rapidly. The center is already treating 32 adult women, nine of whom came here through the Department of Corrections.

After a brief walk-through in the new adolescent wing, the lawmakers sit down in the cafeteria for a panel discussion with three patients. At the staff's request, the women are not identified by their real names.

"Gypsy" is a smartly dressed woman in her early fifties with stylish, bobbed hair and a self-assured, professional demeanor. Seated beside two other patients dressed in sneakers and sweats, she could easily be mistaken for a drug-treatment counselor. But the story of her lifelong battle with alcoholism and the repeated drunk-driving offenses that landed her in Windsor's Southeast State Correctional Facility make it clear how desperately she needs these services.

"Being in prison didn't help me at all," Gypsy says. "It left me more antisocial than ever before...Prison for people who are addicts is horrific -- a breeding ground for worse behavior."

"Eve" spent two years in the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility after a fellow heroin addict overdosed and died in her apartment in 1993. Since then, she's been in and out of prison on drug-related offenses, and has lost custody of her children. Last year, Eve was arrested again, this time for stealing credit cards to buy drugs after a car accident left her hooked on painkillers. Before she arrived at Valley Vista, the only treatment she'd received for her drug habit was a short, unsuccessful stint in a Brattleboro rehab program that no longer exists.

"Lisa" is the youngest of the three, but no stranger to the correctional system. A single woman in her twenties, she describes her difficulties finding housing and employment with a criminal record. Once, she was fired from a job after her boss discovered she'd been in jail, she says. Another time, she sat behind bars for weeks beyond her sentence because landlords wouldn't return her phone calls and Corrections wouldn't release her without a place to live.

It's a common problem, according to Jack Duffy, the center's executive director. Many of these women have no choice but to pore through the classifieds searching for housing before their release, he says. As often as not, they return to their old neighborhoods -- a less-than-ideal formula for successful recovery.

Three Vermont women, three different stories. Though the details of their lives vary, the common threads running through them are easy to spot: lifelong chemical dependencies, a dearth of drug-treatment options behind bars, scanty support services following their release to help them secure housing and employment. All of it contributes to the cycle of substance abuse, re-offending and re-incarceration.

It's particularly disturbing to hear the women speak about how many mothers and daughters they know who are doing time together in prison. As our bus leaves Bradford, the senators speak emotionally about the visit.

"I started to cry," says Senator Diane Snelling (R-Chittenden). "Your crime is, you can't find a place to live."

"It's so heartbreaking," agrees Senator Hinda Miller (D-Chittenden), who used to teach yoga to women in prison. "These women made bad choices and got stuck in a downward spiral they couldn't get out of. That could've been me in there."

An hour later, we arrive at the Northeast Regional Correctional Facility in St. Johnsbury, where we're treated to lunch prepared by the inmates, then take a brief tour of the 23-year-old prison. We're joined by Vermont Corrections Commissioner Steve Gold and Superintendent Celeste Girrell, who gives us a brief warning.

"If you hear a 10-33 over the intercom, that means there's an emergency," she says. "Just get up against the wall and let the people hurry past." We never hear a "10-33," but the warning is most colorful part of our tour.

Because this facility also functions as a county jail, about half the residents here are detainees awaiting trial. In fact, over the last 10 years, the number of pre-trial detainees in Vermont prisons has climbed by more than 300 percent, as the Governor's Commission on Prison Overcrowding reported in August.

When we arrive in "Alpha Unit," a residential wing for male inmates who are within 30 days of release, we see firsthand the problem of chronic overcrowding. The situation isn't nearly as acute as it was last summer, when 20 to 30 inmates were being housed in the prison gymnasium. But in one 8-by-12-foot cell, three inmates share a room built for two. One of them naps on a mattress on the floor, while another lounges in a common area watching "Mad TV."

Perhaps what's most remarkable about this facility is how unremarkable it is. Like most prisons, it's a drab, colorless place, with lots of steel and concrete, and buzzing doors. As we leave, Girrell comments that if the place seems stuffy now, we should try coming back in July. "This building in the summer is really unbearable," she says. "Once the concrete heats up, ugh!"

Our last stop on the tour is just across the parking lot at the Caledonia Work Camp. The 100 or so men who live and work in this minimum-security facility are doing time for non-violent, non-sexual offenses such as drunk driving or dealing drugs. As Commissioner Gold explains, the philosophy here is "the devil makes work for idle hands." Inmates rise before dawn each morning and leave the camp by 7:30 a.m. for jobs in local communities doing carpentry, painting houses, building kiosks, even training dogs from areas shelters to make them more adoptable. When they're not on a job site, the men work on their high school diplomas or attend intensive substance-abuse programs.

Apparently, the work camp is an attractive corrections model among lawmakers. According to Gold, the multi-million-dollar facility is entirely self-supportive and has a recidivism rate much lower than that of the general prison population. Recently, Governor Jim Douglas proposed spending $400,000 to build another one.

Pressed for time, the senators skip the tour and opt instead for a panel discussion with inmates and staff. In many respects, the men at the work camp have a lot in common with the women we met back at Valley Vista. About half have serious addictions that contributed to or exacerbated their criminal behavior. Around 50 percent have children on the outside, and many report difficulties finding employment or housing when they're released. Plenty also arrive here with few, if any, job skills.

"I've had kids come in who don't tie their shoes or pull up their pants," one crew leader says. "At the end of their time here, they've learned to read a ruler and operate a skill saw."

But when the men talk about their crimes, their incarceration, and the factors that contribute to their success or failure, they sound very different from the women. Generally speaking, female prisoners appear to see themselves as victims, and often are, with histories of severe physical, emotional and sexual trauma. They tend to focus on the need for additional assistance in finding housing, jobs and counseling services to stay clean and sober.

The men, by and large, were more inclined to talk about "making the right choices," "learning from my mistakes" and "doing things differently than I did before." Eric Marcy is a 34-year-old work-camp inmate dressed in a tie-dyed T-shirt and blue sweat pants, with a goatee and a skull tattoo on his forearm. (Unlike Valley Vista, this facility's staff have no qualms about inmates being identified by name.) The St. Johnsbury native is serving 18 months to five years on a drunk-driving conviction. He began drinking when he was 13 and now has seven DUI convictions. This is his second time through the work camp.

Senator Snelling asks what transitional services would prevent him from returning to prison a third time. Marcy thinks for a moment, then shrugs. "Everything's always been there for me," he states. "I sometimes had trouble asking for help, but it comes down to bad choices... I'm not sure that any program is going to fix me."

Harold King, Jr., a recovering heroin addict from New Hampshire, offers a similar answer. King has been in the work camp for nine months, and has another three to go before his release. In the last 18 months, he's lost three family members, including a daughter, who died after snorting pills. But the 52-year-old prisoner doesn't blame anyone but himself for his crimes. Nor does he believe that anyone else can lift him out of his addiction.

"Personally, I don't think there's nothing missing out there," King says. "I hope not to make them bad choices again... I'm sick and tired of ending up in places like this."

As our bus heads back towards Montpelier, the senators digest the events of the day. For nearly all of them, this is a repeat experience. And while the stories they've heard today are tragic, they're not unusual. Putting a human face on the societal ills that contribute to recidivism -- drug addiction, multigenerational incarceration, the uphill battle to reintegrate into society -- may spur these lawmakers' sense of urgency, but it doesn't make solving those problems any easier.

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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