In less than a year, the Alliance for Prison Justice (APJ) has established a statewide network of concerned citizens, professionals, ex-prisoners, family members, and like-minded groups. In addition, it has enhanced communication about changes in Vermont Dept. of Corrections policy, promoted broader participation in hearings, sponsored public events, brought together people living or working near prison facilities, and staged a successful conference.
In hopes of promoting closer cooperation and effective action between groups already addressing specific prison-related issues, APJ was founded in 2001 out of planning meetings organized by Toward Freedom, an educational non-profit organization based in Vermont. Looking beyond official pronouncements, a Coordinating Committee (CC) began to discuss the concrete problems faced by prisoners and their families, and consider potential solutions. Among other things, we concluded that effective independent oversight should be one of the main priorities.
After a series of briefings and planning sessions, the CC organized a conference, called It’s About ‘Time’:Bringing Justice to Vermont Prisons. Held on February 16, 2002 in Burlington, it brought together 200 people — prisoners, family members, experts, activists, and state officials — for a day long series of informative workshops. At a follow up session in early March, working groups were established to develop a permanent organizational structure, mission statement, and advocacy strategies. The following mission statement has been adopted.
MISSION: The Alliance for Prison Justice seeks to eliminate inhumane and destructive practices in the Vermont Criminal Justice System and their impact on society; and transform that system by developing constructive, innovative, and humane practices for the benefit of society, and the individual. It will do this by educating the people of Vermont and their representatives through workshops, forums, discussion groups, and other means of communication.
GOALS: APJ will build its capacity as a statewide voice for prison reform, work in collaboration with its affiliated groups, project the needs of prisoners and their families, and promote humane treatment. Members will conduct research, visit prisoners and facilities, and publicize findings. APJ will also promote the creation of a citizens review board, and will consider doing so independently if the Vermont legislature does not act on pending legislation.
OBJECTIVES: to conduct issue education around the state; to monitor and analyze Department of Corrections rules and changes; to disseminate information through a newsletter; and to provide support and subsidies to prisoners and family members.
PUBLIC EDUCATION: APJ wants to create a new context for the discussion of prisoner issues such as overcrowding at Vermont facilities, the increase in incarcerated women and juveniles, lack of DOC responsiveness, sexual misconduct, and privatization. To do so, APJ will stage forums and discussion groups in different parts on the state, in association with the Prisoners Health Coalition and other affiliated groups. At the same time, it will monitor medical, mental health, and psychological therapies, respond to policy problems and complaints, and suggest changes when needed. In addition, APJ will promote participation at public events and hearings, especially by family members of prisoners, and solicit and convey the information and views of inmates, increasing their ability to engage in self-advocacy within the correctional system.
We also feel it is vital to develop a more effective reintegration system, including housing and community resources. During the year, APJ will begin to build support for halfway houses in major cities and various regions, while attempting to counteract negative publicity about people under DOC jurisdiction. Support groups will be developed in different parts of Vermont.
SERVICE DELIVERY: APJ focuses on several problems facing prisoners and members of their families: poor health and mental health care, out of state incarceration, unfair sentences, behavioral treatment, sexual abuse, lack of meaningful rehabilitation and reintegration services, high telephone and commissary costs, and other policies that cut prisoners off from relatives, friends, and the outside world. The short-term plan is to promote and support visits with prisoners by legal interns, counselors, and volunteers who can help follow up on complaints. In a limited number of cases, APJ will help to obtain subsidies for indigent prisoners to obtain legal or other services. Decisions will be made by the Coordinating Committee, in consultation with a Legal Services subcommittee.
Membership and Support
The Alliance currently has over 200 members, and works with concerned citizens and volunteer professionals from the following organizations: Office of the Defender General, Vermont-CURE (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants), Burlington Community Justice Center, American Friends Service Committee-Vermont, Pax Christi, Small Potatoes, Dismas House, Vermont Human Rights Commission, Vermont Refugee Assistance, Governor’s Commission on Women, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Toward Freedom, American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, Green Mountain Support Group, Native Forest Network, and Vermont Protection and Advocacy, Inc., which created the Prisoners’ Health Coalition. A formal organizational structure, including regional representation and subcommittees on oversight and legal services, is currently being developed.
APJ, c/o Toward Freedom
PO Box 468
Burlington, VT 05404
Office Staff: Gideon Turner
Phone: (802) 657-3733