Business-as-usual or…?

“Build it and they will come” is the oft-misquoted meme from the classic movie Field of Dreams. And in the case of the proposal by CoreCivic, a private prison firm, to build and lease back to the State a 925-bed prison in Franklin County, this meme embodies the worst fears of the corrections reform movement.

Many Vermont leaders already oppose the idea, including former head of Corrections, Con Hogan, the Attorney General, the ACLU, NAACP, and Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform. In the face of such headwinds, few believe the prison will ever be built.

Meanwhile, Vermont spends nearly double on corrections what it does supporting our five state colleges, two of which are struggling with declining admissions and rising costs.

We know prevention is always more cost efficient than remediation, so perhaps we could take some of the hundred and fifty-million dollar Corrections budget and, partnering with enlightened employers like Twincraft, Rhino and others, repurpose one of the two campuses to create a low-security, remedial education and employment training center for offenders who pose no threat to the community and fulfill the legislative intent to repatriate our prisoners currently serving in Pennsylvania.

We’ve criminalized the poverty that many of our austerity policies have nourished and we treat mental illness and addictions as crimes rather than the health crisis they are. We jail impulsive young people for stupid decisions rather than counselling them back into society even when prisons have long been understood to be universities for crime and drivers of recidivism, and we jail Black men at a higher per capita rate than any other state.

Nearly half our prisoners are either past their release dates or detainees awaiting trial. A focused diversion curriculum would offer a pathway back into society and the changing economy for newly released offenders as well as for young offenders that would meet them where they are.

In our current system, each male prisoner costs about fifty-thousand dollars annually and each woman, eighty-thousand, and that doesn’t count the social cost of caring for their six-thousand children, whereas the average state college tuition is a mere fifteen-thousand.

Given increased competition, skyrocketing student debt, and declining applications, it’s easy to imagine how we might put one of our existing state campuses to much more productive use.

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