Report targets Vermont's 'shipped away" inmates

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BRATTLEBORO >> Imprisonment sometimes is seen as a black-and-white proposition: An offender commits a crime and does the time.

But in discussing ways to reform and improve Vermont's prison system, advocates at a Wednesday press conference detailed a list of issues as varied as mental health, addiction, family dynamics and even housing.

The gathering was meant as an introduction to a new report that is critical of Vermont's practice of sending some inmates to out of state to prisons operated by private companies. But the discussion also reached deep into social ills and social services — even those provided in childhood.

"I've been working in human services and with kids and families for a long time," said state Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney. "You don't have to go far to find a family that's been impacted by somebody who's been in jail, who's going to jail."

"We hope to try and keep them out of there," Mrowicki said. "And that's why one of the things I want to keep (discussing) is the importance of early services for people — early childhood services to help kids and parents before problems get bigger."

The press conference was called by two groups — Grassroots Leadership and Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, to highlight a report titled "Locked Up and Shipped Away: Paying the Price for Vermont's Response to Prison Overcrowding." The document, which is a follow-up to a 2013 report and is available at grassrootsleadership.org, says there are nearly 500 male inmates from Vermont "being warehoused" in for-profit prisons. Most are in Kentucky, though a small number are housed in Arizona.

"The message remains the same: This policy is a costly Band-Aid for a problem that needs real, systemic, sustainable change," said Holly Kirby of Grassroots Leadership. "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."

While it costs less to incarcerate Vermont inmates out of state, the report says those numbers are misleading due to the impact on prisoners and their family members, who often cannot afford to stay in touch with or visit inmates. That can lead to greater difficulty reintegrating into the community and an increased chance of recidivism, Wednesday's speakers said.

There also are fewer services available in the out-of-state facilities. The dilemma was underlined dramatically by Lebanon, N.H., resident Janice Hutt, who said her brother Bobby Hutt — a Windsor County resident who was sent to prisons in Kentucky and then Arizona — did not get the medical attention he needed while behind bars. He received a delayed cancer diagnosis and died in October of this year, Hutt said.

"He died at home with his family, but it was a long ordeal to actually get him here," she said.

Advocates want Vermont to stop shipping inmates out of state, and they believe there are ways to greatly reduce the overall prison population.

"There are alternatives to incarceration," said Suzi Wizowaty, an outgoing state representative from Chittenden County who directs Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform.

Wizowaty said a legislative task force is looking at the problem, but she mentioned a few possibilities including not locking people up for "nonviolent" crimes and making "possession of drugs for personal use a misdemeanor, not a felony."

Also, conditions of release could be eased.

"People get out on parole or furlough or probation, and there are conditions established for people's behavior that are hard for many people — regular people who don't have issues — to meet," Wizowaty said. "They're particularly hard for people who are struggling in their lives. People can be reincarcerated on a dime, and that's one of the major feeders into the system."

Mrowicki said officials need to look more closely at drug addiction "because, as we see, most of the people who are incarcerated now have the disease of addiction. It's the only disease that we incarcerate people for having."

He also said a lack of housing can exacerbate the problem. Mrowicki referred to a recent meeting between social-services providers and landlords, "and one of the things that kept coming up is that there are people who nobody's going to rent to" due to a troubled past.

"So one of the things we're talking about is a remedial process — maybe a class that people can take to show a good-faith effort that they're ready to change," Mrowicki said.

Contact Mike Faher at 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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