To what end are we locking people in cages?

A former prisoner discusses her experience withdrawing from drugs while incarcerated in solitary confinement in a Vermont prison. Her experience is congruent with what inmates around the country are speaking out against in a nationwide prison strike.

BRATTLEBORO — On April 15, seven inmates at the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina were killed in what the prison termed “inmate on inmate gang violence.” The tragedy was the deadliest in a quarter of a century in the United States and shined a light on the inhumane conditions within prisons that breed such violence.

In response to this incident, incarcerated organizers across the country declared a nationwide prison strike. Jailhouse Lawyers Speak - a group of incarcerated prison-rights advocates - have called for work stoppages, sit-ins, and boycotts within facilities.

This strike, which started Aug. 21 and is set to run until Sept. 9, serves to bring attention to the dehumanizing conditions within prisons across the country. Demands of the strike include an end to prison slavery, rehabilitation services, sentencing reform, and improved conditions that recognize the humanity of imprisoned people.

As it is well known, the U.S. holds the world's largest prison population. The Sentencing Project, an organization that advocates for prison reform, reported in 2017 that 2.2 million people are in prison or jail in the U.S. and incarceration has risen more than 500 percent over the past 40 years.

Additionally, the number of people on probation or parole is around 4.5 million. While poor people overall, especially people of color, face the greatest risk of imprisonment, poor women represent the fastest growing segment of incarcerated people. Since 1980, the number of women in prison has been increasing at a rate 40 percent higher than men.

Here, approximately 1,750 people are incarcerated within seven correctional facilities around the state (Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, 2016). Additionally, Vermont pays an out of state institution in central Pennsylvania (Camp Hill) to hold more than 270 Vermonters due to overcrowding here. This institution has had widespread reports of inadequate medical care, poor living conditions, abusive correctional officers and few opportunities for rehabilitation.

* * *

In late March, I interviewed Crystal Barney, who spent one year incarcerated at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF) in South Burlington. As her experience illustrates, our state is not immune to the dehumanizing conditions being addressed nationally.

Her story mirrors that of many women who are caught in the criminal-justice system. They not only serve time behind bars but also endure the stranglehold of long-term probation that can last for years after the time served.

Barney grew up in rural Vermont and after graduating from high school lived and worked near Rutland. At 21, she became involved in a relationship with a man who was battling addiction. She was introduced to crack, pills, and heroin and became swept up in that world.

The need to finance the addiction led to Barney's involvement in a burglary, which resulted in her arrest. Although initially she was able to go to rehab in lieu of jail time, Medicaid covered only one month of treatment. Consequently, she ran from the center to avoid jail.

With no stable housing and without adequate supports or long-term treatment, she began using again. Seven months later, in August of 2015, she was picked up by police.

She was sentenced to a year.

Upon her arrival at CRCF, Barney was put in the “hole” for four days - a place of solitary confinement within jails and prisons. She had no contact with anyone except for the guards who brought her food and was allowed out of her cell one hour per day. Because she had been using at the time of her arrest, she immediately began experiencing withdrawal.

Now released, Barney is serving out an eight-year probation term and required to pay $15 a month to Department of Corrections - an amount that is not easy to come by as she rebuilds her life. She feels confined around how she can care for her now-10-month-old daughter with rigid probation constraints that keep her within the borders of Vermont.

What Crystal Barney needed was health care rather than jail time - yet Medicaid paid for only a month of treatment. She believes that putting people who are struggling with addiction in jail or prison is not effective in facilitating long-term recovery.

Barney wanted her experience to be shared so more people can understand what it is like on the inside and to highlight the neglectful health care and poor conditions that people face behind bars.

Her experience is congruent with what inmates around the country are speaking out against. The National Prison Strike calls for all of us on the outside to better understand the inhumane conditions in our country's prisons and jails, and to use the platforms we have to raise awareness, educate, organize, and act.

But let us also push and continually question how our tax dollars go toward prisons and jails, whom prisons in fact benefit, and if locking people in cages is, in and of itself, inhumane.

The following are excerpts from our interview in March.

* * *

Anna Mullany: Talk about your experience with withdrawal.

Crystal Barney: I felt like I was dying. They don't do anything, they just literally give you Tylenol and a mattress.

Whether you are detoxing or not, they literally give you one blanket - it's freezing in there all the time, and the toilets are metal. It doesn't matter if you're peeing on yourself or pooping on yourself or puking on yourself. You get an hour of rec time to shower or to do anything you want or to make a phone call. And that's the only time you get: 24 hours, and you only get an hour out of your cell.

A.M.: What was your health like after detoxing, and how was the care you experienced?

C.B.: The medical system in the jail completely sucks; they don't help you do anything. If you have a headache, you can write a medical form, but you are not getting Tylenol till the day after. You have to wait a whole day.

I was having gallbladder attacks, and they just weren't even listening to anything I was telling them. I was even in the infirmary and they gave me a shot of Toradol [an anti-inflammatory painkiller] and told me to go back to my unit. They weren't sending me to the hospital or doing absolutely anything. Literally, they gave me the shot and sent me back to my unit. But you could tell I was in excruciating pain.

A.M.: Do you feel like your health was greatly impacted that year?

C.B.: Oh, yeah. The food, especially, 'cause they feed you a lot of carbs. You can't eat healthy, you can't eat the way that you want to eat, you have to eat what they prepare. You can't eat salads and even the commissary [a store in jail/prison where inmates may purchase products such as hygiene, snacks, over-the-counter medications, envelopes, and other such items] - it's all junk food. You can't even order water off of commissary. Nothing is healthy.

A.M.: What is your access to water when you are in jail? Are you able to drink water whenever?

C.B.: Yeah, but say you're in the hole, the water that you get is hooked up to the toilet. The sink is hooked up to the toilet. They give you a little tiny cup and it's coming from a water fountain that your mouth goes to - your mouth goes to the toilet pretty much. It's disturbing.

A.M.: And during your time, what was your mental health like?

C.B.: “I was depressed. I went insane. [Long pause.] I was lonely, I wasn't thinking straight, I felt claustrophobic a lot. That's why a lot of people when they are in there for a long period of time gain so much weight. The only exercise equipment that they have is the treadmill and some weightlifting stuff. Outside they have a bench and a track that you can walk around.

A.M.: What would you say was the biggest challenge while being incarcerated?

C.B.: One of the biggest challenges? [Long pause.] The fear of never getting out. The fear of dying in there. [Long pause.] I always thought that somebody was going to kill me while I was sleeping, and I always had to watch my back. Because ... [long pause] ... I never took myself as a person to be in jail. That's not me.

I shouldn't have to feel like I am paying for the rest of my life for something like that [burglary charge]. Eight years is a long time. It is a really long time.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates