Bringing Justice to Vermont Prisons
February 16, 2002, Burlington, Vermont
BACKGROUND AND GOALS
Many Vermonters have been concerned about our criminal justice system, which, although better than some, nevertheless has many problems. The last few years have given rise to several citizens’ groups that are dealing with issues like poor health and mental well-being care; transferring prisoners out of state; probation, parole and the furlough system; unfair sentences; behavioral treatment; sexual abuse; lack of meaningful rehabilitation; high telephone and commissary costs; and other policies that unnecessarily cut prisoners off from relatives, friends, and the outside world. Bringing together prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families, students, professionals, and activists from around the state, this conference took a hard and honest look at Vermont’s prison system, and explored the potential for improvement. Conferees also heard from those with direct experience, and work toward a united response.
The goals of the conference were:
1) To promote alternatives to incarceration and rising incarceration rates, better reintegration of prisoners, and restorative justice
2) To raise public awareness of the crisis of incarceration;
3) To present persuasive facts and engage the state’s media;
4) To recognize the humanity of the people who are behind bars; and
5) To alert the public to potential threats to civil liberties growing out of the war on terrorism.
THE ALLIANCE FOR PRISON JUSTICE
Many groups in Vermont work on specific criminal justice and corrections issues. The Alliance for Prison Justice seeks to enhance their efforts. Looking beyond official talk about rehabilitation, the Alliance focuses both on solutions to the concrete problems faced by prisoners and their families, while also addressing the impacts of the war on drugs, the death penalty, and the race, economic, and political roots of the US prison crisis. Individuals and representatives from groups are urged to attend our open meetings and to participate in planning future activities.
NOTE: Video and audio tapes of some workshops may be available in the near future. Contact the Alliance for further information.
The Ins and Outs of Vermont Prisons
Family and friends of prisoners and ex-prisoners discussed life under the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections. Topics included conditions of incarceration for Vermont prisoners here and in Virginia, plus conditions of probation and furlough. After brief presentations, an open discussion focused on evaluating problems and searching for solutions. Moderator: Elizabeth Peterson. Panelists included Loretta Gomez, Barry Kade, Andrea Braasch, ex-inmates and family members, and Robert Meeropol, whose parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed during the Cold War.
Immigration and Detention
In 1996, Congress drastically tightened U.S. immigration policy with the passage of two laws, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. These laws subsequently generated the nation’s fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population and led to record levels of deportation. The Immigration and Naturalization Service now holds over 20,000 non-citizens in detention every day. The majority of these detainees are held in county lock ups such as the Franklin County jail in St. Albans. A former detainee described the conditions and diminished rights that are afforded immigrants in detention. The intensified course of INS enforcement and detention was discussed, as well as how we can educate ourselves and act for the human and civil rights of non-citizens. Panelists included Moses Cirillo, a former immigration detainee from Sudan; Patrick Giantonio, director of Vermont Refugee Assistance; and VRA staffer Michele Jenness.
Kids or Cons? Youth in Crisis
Between 1998 and 2000, the number of youth under 22 years of age incarcerated in Vermont prisons rose from 145 to 245. In 2000, 95 percent of the imprisoned youth under 22 had no high school diploma; 47 percent had dropped out of school; and 48 percent were former special education students. This workshop will explore the problems facing youth that contribute to their involvement in the criminal justice system and the problems that kids face in the system itself. Panelists discussed positive interventions that currently exist and explored ways to improve and expand upon those interventions. Moderator: Heather McKeown, publisher, The Optimist, a teen-oriented newspaper employing young Vermonters and distributed to 23 states and six countries. Panelists included JoEllen Mulvaney, New Directions, Barre; Beth Ruzansky, Coordindator of Club Youth Speak-Out, a prevention program for youthful offenders run through the Burlington Community Justice Center; Dinah Yessne, lawyer, mediator, and founding director of the St. Johnsbury Community Justice Center, an alternative to the criminal justice system for incidents of low level crime and misconduct ; and Stacy Jolles, director of Residential Services, Spectrum Youth & Family Services.
Mental Health and Inmates
This panel discussion included a review of the legal standards for mental health services provided to Vermont inmates, how these standards are being met — or not, and how to advocate for inmates with psychiatric disabilities. The panel members talked about identification, assessment and treatment issues, as well as the problem of suicide prevention and the effects of solitary confinement on mental well-being. Moderator: Beth Danon, supervising attorney, Vermont Protection & Advocacy, Inc. (VT P&A). Panelists included: Jamie Suarez-Potts, co-coordinator American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) New England Criminal Justice Program; Merry Postemski, advocate, VT P&A; David Beldon, advocate, Vermont Psychiatric Survivors; plus others.
Women in Prison: Problems and Opportunities
Women face unique problems in prison. They tend to have more intense medical and mental well-being needs than males (including pregnancy), often face child custody/parenting issues, and are more likely to have a history of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. They are also far more likely to experience sexual misconduct from the guards. On the positive side, females offer unique opportunities for effective rehabilitation if the system can address the problems that resulted in their imprisonment. This workshop explored the current state of imprisonment for women at the two facilities that house them in Vermont — the Dale Correctional Facility, which holds only females, and the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, which holds males and females. Panelists presented the positive programs offered to women, discussed the problems that still exist, and brainstormed solutions. Moderator: Loretta Gomez. Participants included Terry Rowe, superintendent, Dale Correctional Facility and formerly casework supervisor for men and the coordinator of volunteer services at the Chittenden Facility; and John Murphy, superintendent of the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, who deals with the realities of having a relatively small number of female inmates in a largely male facility.
Trading Sex for Favors: Custodial Sexual Misconduct
Custodial sexual misconduct involves anything from trading sexual favors for lighters to forced sex. Currently, this behavior isn’t illegal in Vermont, although it is barred in 47 other states. Therefore, the Department of Corrections must fight the problem internally, but faces fierce resistance from the employees’ union. A bill, currently pending in the Vermont legislature, would criminalize sexual contact between DOC employees and inmates. This workshop discussed the problem and the bill that could help to eradicate it. Moderator: Judith Sutphen, executive director, Governor’s Commission on Women, who has worked on women’s and other social justice issues for the past thirty years. Participants included Sarah Kenney, development director, Women’s Rape Crisis Center in Burlington, and member of the Legislative Committee of the Vermont Network Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault; Dawn Seibert, attorney, Prisoners’ Rights Office and formerly a teacher at a juvenile prison in Connecticut; and Shannon Storey, a Vermont Law School student who has helped draft the current custodial sexual misconduct bill.
Solitary Confinement, Sensory Deprivation, and Control Units
This hands-on, participatory workshop addressrf the conditions experienced by prisoners in solitary confinement, also known as punitive isolation. Participants learned about the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual toll of solitary confinement on human beings. It also covered the growing phenomenon of highly punitive "control unit" prisons. Presenter: Jamie Suarez-Potts, co-coordinator of the Criminal Justice Program, American Friends Service Committee-New England Regional Office. Jamie has worked on prison issues for 25 years, focusing on the impact of sensory deprivation and punitive isolation since the beginning of her prison work.
Re-entering the Community: Reintegration Issues
Longstanding public prejudice and social scapegoating of convicted people are only two of the many obstacles facing ex-prisoners in their efforts to reenter the community. Participants learned more about this very difficult process from ex-prisoners, counselors, and a judge. Through a discussion of these issues, the aim was to increase public support for reintegration efforts. Moderators: Doug and Andrea Braasch. Panelists included Laurie Cassie, Martha Sirjane, Jack Talley, Hon. Edward Cashman, and Conception Cruz
Alternative Means of Rehabilitation
People go into prisons and run a wide variety of programs that open pathways of communication with the inmate population. In this panel discussion, participants heard from several of these people, about what they do and their experiences. Moderator: Martin Pincus, an attorney, mediator and yoga teacher, has taught yoga to the Muslim population in San Quentin state prison, at half-way houses in Oakland, CA, and expects to begin teaching yoga at the Dale women’s facility in Waterbury in February. Panelists included Nancy Rovero and Diana, who bring dogs into prisons to develop relationships with inmates; Rebecca Lesnik, the only physical therapist working with Vermont inmates; Joe Stewart, who brings his private library into prisons; Lynn Westenberger, who practices somatic healing with inmates; Laurence Holtz, who teaches weaving to prisoners; and Lloyd Roller, who leads Buddhist practice and provides a game room.
Doing time While Black or Latino
An introduction to crucial but unexamined issues faced by prisoners of color doing time in a predominantly white prison system, like the one here in Vermont. Presenters: Dr. Laura Fishman, professor of sociology at the University of Vermont and author of Women at the Wall, a study of the impact of incarceration on prisoners’ families; and John Tucker, director of the Racial Justice and Equity Project of the Peace and Justice Center in Burlington since 1994.
Prison Privatization: Profiting from Imprisonment
Imagine your worst nightmare of an HMO — a medical system from which you can’t escape, one that bases its decisions solely on the "bottom line". That’s the nightmare Vermont prisoners experience daily, ever since the state privatized the medical and mental health care systems within Corrections. But it gets worse. Vermont is currently considering sending a few hundred inmates to a private prison in the Midwest, as a response to the budget crunch and the furor over closing the Woodstock facility. The specter of private prisons raises ethical and philosophical questions. This workshop looked into the current state of prison privatization in Vermont, the US, and worldwide. Moderator: Dawn Seibert, attorney, Prisoners’ Rights Office. With Ashley Hunt, director, producer, writer, editor, and cinematographer of Corrections, his debut feature film about prison privatization. Hunt was recently a fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and currently teaches at New School University.
Prisons, Civil Liberties, and the War on Terrorism
In the wake of September 11, the federal government has cracked down on "terrorism" via the USA Patriot Act. The US hasn’t had a capital conspiracy case since Robert Meeropol’s parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed for "Conspiracy to Commit Espionage" at the height of the Cold War. However, in a political climate where fear reigns and due process falls prey to anti-terrorist fervor, defendants charged with "Conspiracy to Commit Terrorism" could face the same punishment. The ripples have also touched Vermont. In response to the 2001 attacks, the state legislature is considering a new legislation, including longer sentences. This workshop explored the devastating effects of September 11 on civil liberties in Vermont and the US. Meeropol re-examined government misconduct during his parents’ case, and pointed to similarities between the anti-communist fervor of the 1950s and today’s crackdown on civil liberties. Panelists also discussed the effect of the new "anti-terrorist" laws and the climate of fear on rates of imprisonment and conditions of confinement. Moderator: James Leas, Esq, attorney, legal panel of the American Civil Liberties Union, and member of the Burlington-Arad-Bethlehem Sister City Project. Participants included attorney Robert Meeropol and Shana Agid, northeast regional coordinator for Critical Resistance and formerly an advocate with HIV+ prisoners in New York at the Prisoners’ Rights Project.
Models of Independent Oversight Panelists introduced and discussed various models for independent oversight of the corrections system, including citizen review boards. The speakers came from throughout the northeastern U.S., and have direct experience working with oversight groups and approaches. They also discussed the benefits and dangers of various models, with an eye toward citizen involvement and applicability to the state of Vermont. Moderator: Dawn Seibert, staff attorney, Vermont Defender General’s Office. Panelists include William DiMascio, executive director, Pennsylvania Prison Society; Michael Mushlin, board member, Correctional Association of New York; and Jamie Suarez-Potts, co-coordinator, Criminal Justice Program, American Friends Service Committee – New England Regional Office.
Part Two: Dialogue with Vermont Legislators
What do Vermont lawmakers have to say about oversight and other corrections issues? This was a chance to hear their views and ask questions. Moderator: Robert Appel, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission. Legislators included Senators Vincent Illuzzi, Susan Bartlett, and James Condos; and Representatives Elaine Alfano, John Tracy, and Steve Hingtgen.