Before We Build New Prisons, Let’s Fix the System that Fills Them

VT Digger column – Schubart

H. 543, a funding bill to study options for building new prisons has both drawn ire and nonsense from those supposed to act on it, the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions. The ire was against the ACLU which has long made criminal justice and mass incarceration a practical and social justice focus of its policy reform  (Disclosure: I’m a member and former Board member of the ACLU). A letter to its membership suggesting that the bill should explore alternatives to new prison construction annoyed a few legislators who then vented their umbrage against the ACLU in a two-hour hearing – odd when it’s their job to hear and pay attention to diverse points of view.

The Chittenden County Regional Correctional Facility  (CRCF) which houses some 140 women in South Burlington was a detention center built to house 100 men in 1976.  The facility is overcrowded and the infrastructure is crumbling with chronic sewage, heating, and ventilation problems. A white paper published seven and a half years ago by a consortium of concerned women details deteriorating conditions inside the facility back then and little has been done since.

The current Senate language (P.67) considerably improves the House version, adding provisions for alternatives such as restorative justice, transitional housing, and diversion programs. As to the proposed $250,000 study stall-tactic, that’s the cost of keeping three women in jail for a year. I’m sorry, but I’ve been appointed to three legislative “study” committees and seen the hard and serious work of only one ever see legislative light of day, so you’ll pardon my skepticism.

Building more prisons is like building new malls in an age of e-commerce. The last thing we need to do is invest scarce funds in the infrastructure of a broken system that yields more broken lives. It’s imperative that we get the women out of South Burlington (CRCF) but a new prison is not the right solution.

In fact, we need to rethink the entire criminal justice, not just the last mile. In a meeting two years ago with then Corrections Commissioner Lisa Menard, she reminded me that Corrections doesn’t fill prisons. Their job is only to house the prisoners that prosecutors, judges, juries, and police put there and manage them according to statute.

Our prisons are the last mile of a broken system going all the way back to those among us who would “lock ‘em up,” as expressed recently by House Correction panelist Rep. Marcia Martel, R-Waterford who, alluding to two women from her town convicted of murder, said “They can rot. And I don’t feel sorry for them.”

Instead, for each inmate, we need to ask why is this woman in jail? If it was for a violent offense, we need to understand if the woman was mentally ill, preternaturally violent, or defending herself? Each has a different remedy.

As for property crimes, we must ask was the crime a result of addiction, poverty, or simple greed. Each must have its own criminal justice path. To assume they’re all one solution is wasteful of our limited resources and our citizens lives, including the 6000 plus children of people in corrections.

Addiction treatment offers a path to recovery and community reentry and costs less than the $85,000 a year we spend on each woman in South Burlington.

Poverty makes us uncomfortable, as it should, reflecting our own poor social investments. Do we lock up the mother for shoplifting food for herself or her children or kiting checks to pay her rent or do we help her make her way back into society and the economy?

Is my $250 speeding ticket the same as the single mother’s $250 ticket for driving an uninspectable vehicle because there’s no public transportation in her community? If so, we have a deeper equity problem that has nothing to do with new jails.

Punish greed if you will but be sure and punish privileged greed equally – the bookkeeper who embezzles to enrich herself, as well as the Wells Fargo executive who extracts fabricated fees from several hundred thousand customers to enrich herself, or the pharma executive who addicts hundreds of thousands with opiate prescriptions along with the colored kid peddling coke on the street. Scale matters.

When the billionaire Richard Sackler of Purdue Pharmaceutical pays a pocket-change fine of a few million dollars in lieu of jail time for mis-marketing Oxycontin as non-addictive and the street dealer gets 25 years, we have a deeper criminal justice problem.

For our own sake and the sake of all Vermonters, let’s rethink this and get it right.