Focusing on Vermont Prisons 6/02

The need to share problems and solutions about Vermont’s criminal justice system became the inspiration for an all-day event, “It’s About ÔTime’: Bringing Justice to Vermont Prisons,” held on Feb. 16 at a public school in Burlington’s Old North End. The event exceeded expectations: At least 200 people took part, attending 12 workshops and afternoon plenary sessions that featured Vermont lawmakers and experts on citizen oversight. TF was a key sponsor.

One reason for its success was the varied backgrounds of the organizers, who encouraged participation with a wide range of friends, families of prisoners, activists, and attorneys. Here are a few that Robin got to know on the planning committee. Dave and Elizabeth also work with them on the Alliance for Prison Justice (APJ).

*     Dawn Seibert, attorney with the Prisoner’s Rights Office in Montpelier, who brought expertise and the authority of her office to the planning sessions.

*     Doug and Andrea Braasch, whose encounters with the Department of Corrections (DOC) over the incarceration of their son (sentenced to five years for possession of marijuana and stealing from parking meters) have turned them into anti-prison activists.

*     Alan Taplow, a Buddhist Quaker and recent retiree from New Jersey who has a publishing service on incarceration and bereavement called Omlet. His Website claims that “pigs lead to piglets, om leads to OMlets.”

*      Loretta Gomez, incarcerated for five years on a drug charge. Since her release in 1997, Loretta has found her calling by helping others so they “won’t have to go over the hills and mountains I went over.”

*     Laura Ziegler, a thorn in the side of the DOC who convinced five state legislators to attend the conference. They were quizzed and cajoled by an audience looking for alternatives to the bitter and brutal reality of incarceration today.

Conference Highlights

During the workshops, much pain was expressed. “There is no place to go when you have complaints with the DOC,” said the mother of a prisoner. “It’s a closed system, a wall. They won’t talk against each other. Probation officers are on the same maturity level as the person they are controlling.”

One man explained how arbitrary life is on furlough. The furlough officer is “your own personal warden, judge, and jury,” he said. A woman with a son in Virginia noted that the bus ride to see him cost her $179 round trip, pointing out that the state of Connecticut pays to send a bus down with family members to visit out-of-state prisoners. Loretta Gomez summed it up: “Jail is to bring people to their knees, and not build them back up.”

State Sen. Susan Bartlett cautioned against thinking that education and rehabilitation were options with wide appeal. “You’re the choir in here,” she told the crowd. “The rest of the world does not agree with you. Folks have asked for longer prison terms and they want more people locked up. However, Vermonters DO want corrections to teach people how to be better citizens. So public education is important.”

Rep. Steve Hingtgen, a Progressive from Burlington, described some of the pressures that have led to an increasingly punitive system. “I remember two years ago, when I was sitting on the House Judiciary Committee, we were asked to rewrite the DOC mission statement,” he recalled. “The goal seemed to be to remove references to rehabilitation and replace them with references to victims’ rights.” That didn’t happen, but the experience showed him how an important movement for justice – victims’ rights has been used to justify an increasingly harsh and punitive agenda. “The long-term need is that people do not re-offend, and the only way to work toward that end is to offer rehabilitation.”

One aim of the day was to provide an opportunity to discuss various models of independent oversight of the corrections system. Panelists from Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania described citizen’s review boards and independent oversight committees in their states. But no one, including the Vermont legislators who attended, offered much hope that a bill establishing “citizen advisory boards to prepare public reports concerning the conditions” in Vermont facilities would soon become law.

Instead, the audience was encouraged to constitute its own citizen advisory board, and to call on legislators when an immediate response team is needed to check out a problem in a prison. Hingtgen explained how “the rivers part when an legislator appears on the scene with a hat that says Ôlegal observer’.” Bartlett seemed to speak for the other legislators when she said, “If Steve makes the hats, we’ll wear them.”

An Agenda for Change

The main areas of concern indicated by 185 people who filled out surveys are: reintegration, mental health, out-of-state transfers, independent oversight, probation and parole, and segregation, solitary confinement, and sensory deprivation.

As we looked at the many problems, it was obvious that Vermont isn’t the only state that has them, just as the US isn’t the only nation with the death penalty. Since we are residents of Vermont, we want to work within our state to make changes. We also want to change the federal system into which Vermonters are sent, as well as prisons in other states.

To take these and other actions, we propose that the APJ continue. There is much to do, including research and fact-finding, creating reports, and organizing oversight

visits. Using this knowledge, we should approach the legislature, and do public education through the media, civic organizations, and the schools. We believe that, in the future, the situation could call for public demonstrations, including fasts and civil disobedience. We should also work with organizations that object to the present forms of governmental elections, work against the prominent influence of corporations, oppose all military wars, work for human rights for every human being, and seek to create a communal order in which everyone will have a voice and will not accept the capitalist dogma that “success” and “happiness” comes from having more money than other people. In essence, we seek not to reform the prisons but to abolish them and create a loving, communal society that will function as a genuine democracy.

To accomplish these tasks, we will network with families of prisoners, ex-prisoners, organizations that seek to improve prisons, and the many who work to prevent alcoholism and drug addiction, including with young people.

Many thanks to the groups and individuals who work on these important issues and have participated in the Alliance for Prison Justice so far. The groups include Burlington’s Community Justice Center, American Friends Service Committee of Vermont, Vermont Protection and Advocacy, Inc., Vermont Human Rights Commission, Vermont Refugee Assistance, Prisoners’ Rights Office, Governor’s Commission on Women, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, Vermont-CURE (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants), Prisoners’ Health Coalition, Dismas House, Pax Christi, Small Potatoes, Green Mountain Support Group, the National Association of Rights, Protection and Advocacy, Restorative Justice of Central Vermont, and many other organizations in Vermont and throughout New England. We look forward to continued work with them and others.