Meg McCarthy is a graphic designer and an advocate for prison reform who has been invited to serve on the Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform’s board of directors. Her husband, Richard Gagnon, is serving a 17-years-to-life sentence for killing his boss, Brattleboro Food Co-op store manager Michael Martin, in 2011.
Originally published in The Commons issue #276 (Wednesday, October 15, 2014). This story appeared on page D1.
It’s frightening when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer. When that loved one is almost a thousand miles away, in a for-profit prison in Kentucky, the feelings of terror and helplessness are multiplied. And it’s exactly what happened to me in July of this year.
My husband, Richard, had a persistent sore throat earlier in the summer, and eventually was given a blood test when it didn’t respond to antibiotics. The staff there first told him he might have leukemia, then lymphoma. When a biopsy was finally done, it was shown to be neck cancer, originating in his tonsil.
Richard had been sent to Lee Adjustment Center in Beattyville, Ky., because the Vermont Department of Corrections had run out of space in our Vermont facilities. Almost 500 Vermont inmates are housed in prisons owned by the Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA. Most are in Kentucky; a couple of dozen or so are in Arizona.
Having a loved one so far from home is a terrible hardship for families, many of whom can’t afford to make the costly trip south even once a year. Some are never able to make it at all, and they haven’t seen their inmate in five, ten, or more years.
By the time Richard was diagnosed, he had been in LAC for nearly two years. I had made the trip down to visit him several times. As much of a financial burden as it was, it was important to me to keep our relationship strong, and for him to feel the love and support firsthand.
Sometimes during a visit, there were no other visitors in the place, just Richard and me and a corrections officer in a cavernous room. Other times, there were one or two other visits going on, rarely more.
When you think of a population of more than 450 men, that’s a lot of people not feeling the in-person support of friends and family. That kind of support cannot be overestimated. Most of the people in our prisons will be released back into our communities someday, and connections with family and community are crucial to a successful re-entry.
But what can Vermont do if it hasn’t enough room in our prisons? We can’t afford to build another prison up here. But more importantly, why would we want to?
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Across the country, states and the federal government are seeing that over-incarceration is counterproductive. The realization that we have too many people in prison is coming clear.
Prisons are not making people better citizens, and they are not making us safer. There are alternatives to incarceration, many of which Vermont is currently employing. But we need to do more.
The way to bring Vermonters home from Kentucky is to reduce the prison population. It is better for our communities to keep our people here and better for the state if it isn’t sending tax dollars to a corrections corporation.
Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, or VCJR, is an organization that was formed to address issues concerning corrections in the state. It has launched a campaign, “Locked Up And #ShippedAway,” to educate Vermonters about our ties with for-profit prisons, and to change public policy so that we don’t have to rely on CCA to house Vermont offenders.
On the group’s online petition website, it states, “We in Vermont are making progress, but we can’t stop now. Public and private agencies are working together to expand pre-trial services and increase mental health and drug treatment opportunities.
“We also have drug courts, court diversion, mentoring programs and community justice centers that provide restorative justice panels and re-entry programs such as Circles of Support and Accountability.
“But to further reduce the prison population and increase public safety, we must do more. We must expand restorative justice options, reform sentencing practices, change supervision policies and re-evaluate the state’s approach to housing.”
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Last summer was rough for our family. LAC did eventually make appointments for medical procedures and meetings with doctors.
But when? (Prisons do not tell inmates or families when the patient will be treated or seen by practitioners). Who are these doctors? What kind of reputation does this hospital have?
With a loved one in prison, you have no say over their medical treatment — nor does he. And when they are far from home, you know very little about the treatment he’s receiving.
There was a possibility discussed of his staying in Kentucky and being treated at Appalachian Regional Healthcare, a treatment most likely to include surgery, radiation, and possibly chemotherapy. But Richard has returned to Vermont, and he will receive treatment at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. It is a relief, and an outcome I had hoped for, but it wasn’t a given.
When possible, DOC seems to prefer to have sick people cared for in Vermont, under DOC supervision, but that’s not always the case. Once he’s treated, assuming he returns to good health, he might be sent again to Kentucky.
I have personal reasons to hope that Vermont can end this practice of sending inmates far away to for-profit prisons. But I would never have expected to find myself in this position. Nothing in my life prepared me for this.
Everyone reading this could potentially find a friend or family member in trouble and incarcerated. And even if you don’t, the safety and well-being of incarcerated people, and their successful reentry into our communities, touches us all.
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