Time to Close the Women’s Prison for Good

The recent reactions of various officials blinking in the glare of the latest reports by Seven Days and Vermont Digger about the inhumane and abusive conditions and lack of accountability in the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility for Women (CCRF) are unacceptable. Newly appointed Secretary of the Agency of Human Services, Mike Smith, bears no responsibility for what has come to light, but since Corrections lies within his department, he must assume responsibility for fixing the problems. His most recent response indicates his preference for using U.S. Dept of Justice Attorney Christina Nolan as the appropriate person to oversee an investigation.

What do we need to know about our ongoing corrections problems that we don’t already know from the substantive reporting by Seven Days, VTDigger, ACLU-VT, Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform and others? We need to act on the information we have. People’s lives and health are at stake and bad policy “trickles down” to affect families.

I have no doubt U.S. Attorney Nolan would do a fine job but I worry about the waste in lapsed time, accountability and money… and possible interference from her superiors in Washington, namely one Attorney General William Barr, recently quoted threatening that, “if communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.”

Surely, a more productive use of our time and money would be to address the causes of crime, such as poverty, abuse, and addiction, and develop more cost-effective alternatives to incarceration, like treatment, training, education, job training, and restorative justice, instead of criminalizing poverty and addiction.

Prosecutors, judges, police, legislators and, yes, we Vermonters, put people in prison. We elect our prosecutors and legislators. We oversee appointed judges and police. Our entire criminal justice system reflects our belief in punishment as a deterrent to crime. Until we get over this myth and rethink our criminal justice system with the goal of helping people to safely reenter society equipped to lead productive lives, we’ll continue to waste money and lives building prisons and filling them. We should invest in people not punishments.

We spend about $85,000 annually to keep a woman in the CRCF and about fifty thousand for each man held in other facilities – all too often, an investment in recidivism. Neither figure includes the cost of caring for the 6000 children whose parents are in the care of the correctional system, adding $36 million to the $158 million we spend on incarceration. If you look at the entire criminal justice system in Vermont: the courts, lawyers, police, we spend upwards of $500 million on “public safety,” about a twelfth of the Vermont State budget.

According to Chittenden County States Attorney, Sarah George, of the twenty women from Chittenden County serving jail time in the facility, three are there for manslaughter, the rest are there for non-violent violations and property crimes. She deserves great credit for her willingness to re-examine their cases and determine who inside should be considered for early release based on prosecutorial evidence. Every states attorney should be doing the same. Several already are and others have announced intentions to do so.

The entire CRCF population is around 150 women, most of whom are either detainees awaiting trial who cannot afford bail or have passed their sentence time but have no viable housing and support options. Surely, a halfway facility would cost less than $85,000 per client per year.

Today, the headline grabber is the CRCF, but lying behind that is an equally broken criminal justice system. ACLU of Vermont has developed a Smart Justice blueprint for reform that every Vermonter and policy-maker should read. Its main tenets are bail, sentencing, parole, and probation reform; decriminalization of poverty, substance abuse, and mental health conditions, prosecutor accountability, comprehensive and accessible data, and challenging systemic racism.

Compare the $158 million dollars we spend corrections to the $88 million we spend on higher ed. – ass backwards perhaps?  Imagine if we took one of our flagging state colleges and added a reentry curriculum, essentially a redemptive path back into society for those either fallen out or left behind. Bard, John Jay, Walla Walla and Roger Williams University, among others, have all shown considerable success here.

An admissions board composed of corrections, education, mental health, law enforcement, and addiction recovery specialists would vet each “educational diversion” applicant. Each enrollee would be required to sign a “personal responsibility” contract, clarifying the terms of enrollment and attesting to the offender’s commitment. We could reallocate the $85,000 this way:

  • $14,000 tuition to the state college. (top in-state rate)
  • $5,000 tuition enhancement to the college to develop and manage curriculum
  • $20,000 living stipend to the program participant
  • $5,000 annual stipend for a personal mentor
  • $3,000 admin fee to manage program and fund counselling

Total cost would be $47,000; total annual savings would be $38,000 per female inmate and a few thousand for each male.

For every woman in South Burlington, there’s a personal story that landed them there: malfeasance, abuse, addiction, mental health issues. For many, technical violations beyond their control have extended their time there. Add to this the punishing behavior of some corrections officials, the ongoing neglect of complaints by their superiors and you have a recipe for continued abuse by staff and prisoner recidivism.

We need to supervise people who have committed violent offenses, but there are more effective ways to deal with those who haven’t than prison time. Interestingly, homicides have the lowest recidivism rate of any class of offender. Restorative justice, circles of support and accountability, transitional housing and mental health treatment options are less expensive and offer a practical as well as redemptive path back to community and economic independence.

We’re better than this. It’s time to close the women’s prison.

Seven Days: “Everybody Knew”

Seven Days: “Guarded Secrets

Seven Days: “State Seeks Federal Probe of Vermont Women’s Prison”

VTDigger: “AHS Secretary Proposes Changes”

VTDigger: “Report sparks state probe into abuses at Vermont’s prison for women”

VTDigger: “Reports of abuse at women’s prison prompting review of cases”