Vermont: Sympathy for the Prisoners (03/02)

Twenty-five years ago, less than half a million people were behind bars in the US. Today, even though crime rates are still roughly the same, more than two million prisoners are doing hard time. Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom won’t die. You know, more severe punishment and longer sentences will reduce crime — or at least incapacitate some bad guys. Oh yes, some are truly dangerous. However, the sad truth is that most people in US jails are nonviolent offenders and casualties of the war on drugs, many incarcerated for possession, not the sale, of narcotics.

And what do they experience while serving time? Well, the UN calls US prisons "brutal," uncomfortably like the hellish depictions we see in shows like HBO’s 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 twenty-three and a half hours a day, under extreme surveillance and control, with little opportunity for education and training.

But that’s all somewhere else, right? In Vermont, we tell ourselves, things aren’t so bad. Yet, Vermont judges also hand out tougher sentences these days, the state’s jails are packed, and the Department of Corrections (DOC) keeps inmates locked up longer than a decade ago. For the last five years, DOC spending has been the fastest growing part of the State’s budget, currently topping $75 million.

Recently, the focus has been on the state’s furlough program, the closing of the Woodstock jail, and the expense of sending 37 percent of its prisoners — the highest rate in the country — out of state. But these aren’t Vermont’s only prison woes. For example, many prisoners here have mental health problems. Last summer, more than half of the inmates in the St. Albans segregation wing had diagnosed psychiatric disabilities. Yet officials often deal with them by turning to solitary confinement.

Other shortcomings and warning signs:

* overcrowding. In Rutland’s Marble Valley Regional Correctional Center, four inmates live in cells built for two. Calling that "inhumane," inmates there are suing the State. At the perpetually overcrowded Chittenden Community Correctional Center, 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 has tripled since 1994, while the number of the 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 five percent are high school graduates. Can we call that progress?

* a less than responsive DOC — even when given direct instructions by the legislature. A recent Vermont law, for example, 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, health care is inadequate, and education and work opportunities are scarce.

* no law barring sexual misconduct by staff — even though 45 other states have taken action. 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, it’s a short leap to consider a private jail in Vermont. 

In other words, we still have a long way to go before our corrections system lives up its "enlightened" image. Good intentions and, apparently, bureaucratic promises just aren’t enough. We need a thorough, ongoing look at what’s 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. However, a promising new bill, H-241, still has a chance for a fair hearing during the current session.

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 cities and states in the US, 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 can’t enforce standards, but does go into prisons, investigates complaints, and reports officially to the legislature. Pennsylvania’s independent non-profit 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, explains, "The average person out there in society isn’t 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," he adds, "to treat the illness rather than just the symptoms."

Good advice from an unexpected source. So, who knows? Maybe, by taking it, Vermont can someday become part of the solution, rather than just a somewhat less egregious part of the problem.

This article was published on February 13, 2002 in Seven Days, a weekly newspaper in northwestern Vermont.