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The Commons
News

Prison-reform activists seek return of inmates

Vermont, national grassroots organizations partner to bring prisoners closer to home

To learn more, visit vermontersforcriminaljusticereform.org, or contact Wizowaty at 802-864-5651 or wizowaty@burlingtontelecom.net.

Originally published in The Commons issue #284 (Wednesday, December 10, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.



BRATTLEBORO—Janice Hutt squeezed her eyes shut against her tears. Her words sounded broken by her throat as she spoke to a small crowd of family and strangers.

“We lost Bobby on Oct. 27, 2014,” she said.

Hutt’s brother was one almost 500 Vermont prisoners serving sentences in out-of-state, for-profit prisons.

Bobby died in Vermont, but it was a long ordeal to get him back to the state, Hutt said.

For more than a decade, the state has managed overcrowding in its prison system by contracting with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a for-profit company that has accepted Vermont prisoners at its Kentucky and Arizona facilities.

“I don’t want anyone else’s family to go through this, because it’s not right by any stretch of the imagination,” said Hutt.

Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform and Grassroots Leadership, a national nonprofit based in Austin, Texas, is partnering on “Locked Up & Shipped Away,” a campaign that aims to halt the state’s practice of shipping prisoners out of state.

Grassroots Leadership released its report “Locked Up & Shipped Away: Paying the Price for Vermont’s Response to Prison Overcrowding,” on Dec. 3 at a press conference at the Marlboro College Graduate Center.

The 2014 state-specific report is a follow-up to a similar report released last year that looked at the nationwide practice of shipping prisoners.

Report author Holly Kirby said that “shipping prisoners far from home punishes families and children, emotionally and financially.”

“It severs critical supportive ties between prisoners and loved ones, shown to contribute to better outcomes once released — something that should concern all Vermonters,” she wrote.

“The only party that benefits is Corrections Corporation of America, because the more Vermonters who fill their prison beds, the better their bottom line,” concluded Kirby.

Time for change?

Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform (VCJR) founder and outgoing Rep. Suzi Wizowaty, D-Burlington, joined Kirby in describing Vermont’s policy of shipping prisoners as “a costly Band-Aid for a problem that needs systemic, sustainable change.”

Founded almost two years ago, VCJR works to raise awareness of the criminal justice system.

Wizowaty said she started VCJR to give families of prisoners an avenue for advocacy. She thanked “the courage of those who are speaking out,” adding that many have feared retribution and have experienced the stigma attached to incarceration.

According to Hutt, her normally athletic brother Bobby complained of leg pain for nine months while serving time in an Arizona prison.

Prison staff assumed Bobby was only seeking pills to medicate a drug addiction, said Hutt.

But on Thanksgiving Day 2013, she said, her brother’s femur snapped in two.

The diagnosis: osteosarcoma, a bone cancer.

Lack of communication in the prison left Bobby for 54 painful days without notification of his diagnosis or treatment, said Hutt.

According to Wizowaty, 40 percent of Vermont prisoners are incarcerated for non-violent crimes. Release from incarceration sometimes hinges on something technical, like lack of housing, she said.

She called the state’s argument that shipping prisoners saves money “misleading,” and said the financial and emotional costs to families are huge.

The justice system, especially the prison system, has a “punishment mindset,” said Wizowaty. The longer a person is incarcerated, “the worse the outcome.”

Local resident Meg McCarthy, a VCRJ volunteer, has experienced the pressures of having her husband Richard Gagnon imprisoned out of state.

Gagnon shot and killed his supervisor, Michael Martin, at the Brattleboro Food Co-op in 2011.

First imprisoned in Springfield, Gagnon was later transferred to Kentucky. He returned to Vermont a few months ago to receive treatment for cancer on his tonsil.

McCarthy said she saw a positive psychological change in Gagnon when he returned to the state. The move has been positive for her, too, now, she can visit him weekly.

“Having CCA in charge of cancer treatment is terrifying,” said McCarthy.

According to McCarthy, Gagnon received his cancer diagnosis in July, but wasn’t seen by a doctor until September.

The CCA prisons aren’t prepared to care for prisoners with difficult diagnoses, she said.

“It just really doesn’t matter to them,” McCarthy said.

After Gagnon killed Martin, McCarthy said she wondered if she could remain in the area, but she has had support from many friends.

“The community has been fantastic,” she said.

McCarthy said she knows that some people don’t support her or Gagnon, but they have never acted unkindly toward her.

Ripple effects

Many of the Dec. 3 speakers worked in human service arenas that put them in contact with the families of prisoners, and they saw incarceration cause ripples that rocked adults, children, and communities.

And, they said, for prisoners housed out-of-state, the waves were often bigger.

Think of distance, think of the cost of long-distance phone calls, think of the cost of plane tickets, the speakers said.

“You don’t have to go far to find a family that’s been impacted by someone who’s gone to jail,” said Rep. Michael Mrowicki, D-Putney, who serves on the House Human Services Committee.

Mrowicki said that the state supports early intervention and addiction services as a way to reduce recidivism.

One example: Mrowicki estimates that 250 prisoners could be released in Vermont if they had housing. The Legislature has formed a task force to develop a proposal for rehousing former prisoners, he said.

According to Larry Hames, the director of the Brattleboro Community Justice Center, Vermont is the only state to actively use restorative justice concepts and programs in its justice system.

The state has initiated programs like Circles of Support and Accountability (COSAs), which match sexual offenders with a group of volunteers that both holds the person accountable while helping that person reintegrate safely into the community, said Hames.

The Legislature recently approved legislation to find alternatives to housing people awaiting trial. Removing that clientele from prison would free in-state beds for prisoners now held out-of-state, said Hames.

Vermont’s overcrowding proves profitable

Despite the state’s efforts, it still ships almost a quarter of its prison population to private out-of-state prisons.

Kirby said that Vermont has one of the longer histories with the practice, which “postpones or delays real sustainable change,” she said. As a progressive state, “it’s really a backwards policy.”

One CCA prison in Kentucky houses only Vermont prisoners, said Kirby, charging that the company is banking on Vermont’s overcrowded prison system. The state doesn’t need to change its policies, she said — not with CCA waiting with open arms.

“We could do better,” said Kirby.

According to Grassroots Leadership, four states — Vermont, Idaho, Hawaii, and California — collectively ship more than 10,000 prisoners out of their respective states to private, for-profit prisons.

Private prisons in Kentucky house approximately 470 to 480 Vermont prisoners, while approximately 20-30 prisoners end up in Arizona, according to the 2014 report from Grassroots Leadership.

The report said the state could do more to return them to their home state.

For example, the report notes that the most serious offense for 157 imprisoned Vermonters was a drug charge, meaning that 31 percent of the prison population could be diverted to drug treatment programs if available.

According to the report, last year, the state paid CCA more than $12.8 million to incarcerate its prisoners.

The report argues that while direct costs of incarcerating prisoners out-of-state might immediately cost the state less than alternatives, other ramifications — like increased rates of recidivism — cost the state more over time.

The CCA prisons often provide the services less expensively in the short term because they offer fewer services, such as mental health treatment, and pay their staff lower wages.

And Grassroots Leadership and VCJR both stress that severed family ties — compromising the prisoner’s potential support system in the outside world after release — is the biggest cost to society of shipping prisoners out of state.

The report lists recommendations to state lawmakers, such as expanding pre-trial services, increasing mental health and drug treatment programs, and expanding restorative-justice programs.

“Vermont leaders must recognize there’s no justice in hurting innocent families and there’s no sense in hyper-incarceration,” states the report. “It’s time to do what is best for all Vermonters — reduce incarceration, cut ties with prison profiteers, and bring prisoners home.”

From Wall Street to prison

Michael Washington sat facing the people gathered at the Graduate Center. He told them he debated whether to speak that day.

Washington, who now lives in Bennington, said he worked on Wall Street for 25 years.

Without elaborating, he said a series of mistakes lead him to an addiction. This addiction lead him to “a life of criminality” that resulted in a prison sentence in New York state.

Now six years into his recovery, Washington said, “I’m here to talk about the success that can come from adversity.”

New York might not ship prisoners out-of-state to the degree that Vermont does, he said. But the Empire State will ship people — mostly from New York City — hundreds of miles from their communities to correctional facilities near the Canadian border.

Washington said he believes that people must atone for their crimes. The prison system, however, operates under “negative reinforcement” rather than toward success and recovery, he said.

Society can prove unwelcoming for former convicts, he said.

Washington said he “decided to embrace recovery in prison.”

“I was one of the lucky ones,” he added.

Unlike Washington, many prisoners don’t receive help for kicking their addiction. Washington’s parole officer wanted him to leave prison and enter a mission that Washington described as a homeless center.

“Walking out of prison with an active addiction is a scary proposition,” he said.

Washington fought for, and won, admittance to a nine-month post-prison recovery program.

Such programs are in short supply — especially in-patient programs, especially programs in Bennington, and especially programs in southern Vermont in general, he said. The result is former convicts looking to change their lives and re-enter society don’t receive necessary support.

“That affects all of us,” he said. “That affects our community.”

His prison experience and recovery from addiction put Washington on the path of helping others in similar situations.

Of the five men recently returned to Vermont from prisons in Arizona and Kentucky, Washington said that three have lost contact with their families.

To succeed in such situations, it’s paramount for people seeking help, that there’s a community willing to help them, he added.

“My story is the exception, not the rule,” said Washington.

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