by Suzi Wizowaty, VCJR Director
When I first started going into Vermont’s prisons, it was to lead book discussions under the auspices of the Vermont Humanities Council because its director at the time, Victor Swenson, believed everyone should have access to literature and the opportunity to discuss it, regardless of their circumstances. I shared this belief. At the same time, I assumed—and I realize this only in retrospect—that those behind bars were there for a good reason. I didn’t care what the reasons were, but I assumed the “system” worked.
What happened was that over time, as I got to know inmates, I began to question the system. The more I learned, the clearer became the truth: the system was broken. Very broken. Perhaps irreparably.
by David N. Adair, Jr. VCJR Board of Directors
Last month, the Brennen Center for Justice at New York University School of Law released a report that effectively, and in graphic detail, demonstrated that the continued use of mass incarceration has not resulted in a decrease in the amount of crime in the United States.
Perhaps the most misguided and least effective action the legislature regularly takes is to create new crimes—that is, to criminalize behaviors we all want to prevent. But why does a group of such smart, thoughtful people do something over and over that most of us know is a bad idea?
Calling something a crime doesn’t prevent it from happening, any more than does increasing penalties on an already existing crime. It only sucks more people into the criminal justice system, which as most people know is like a tar baby; every touch, every encounter, gets you more stuck and makes your life harder.
Believing otherwise is magical thinking.
It doesn’t take a lot of sensitivity to observe that people who are struggling, whose lives are on the edge, need help more than punishment. Nor does it take a particular political perspective to believe that parents and children at risk are better served by supports that aim to prevent disasters than by punishments after the fact.
Knowing the players as I do, I think it can’t be lack of empathy, or lack of awareness of the realities of struggling families, that drives the impulse to punish. Perhaps it arises out of frustration with our inability to prevent humans from hurting each other. As individuals we do what we can, and some people believe government should try to keep people safe. But it can’t. Nothing any of us can do can keep all of us safe all the time. And acting ineffectively out of our own frustration only makes things worse, like screaming at a crying child.
The proposal to create a new felony in response to the profoundly sad deaths of two children may be well intentioned, but it’s worse than misguided. Do we Vermonters really want to put more struggling parents in jail? Our current practice of relying on punishment rather than support has already resulted in the over-incarceration of low-income Vermonters. It’s time to get off that path.
To the Editor:
We are writing in response to your recent editorial about the Locked Up and #Shipped Away campaign. You address what appear to be the cost savings of shipping approximately 500 Vermont prisoners to the Lee Adjustment Center in Kentucky. This prison is run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a private, for-profit business. How would a for-profit prison do well? By getting and keeping more people imprisoned for as long as possible.
According to The Sentencing Project website, “The United States is the world's leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation's prisons or jails -- a 500% increase over the past thirty years.” Interestingly, CCA was founded in 1983, thirty-one years ago.
A recent article in the Huffington Post states that, “profits of corporations have been prioritized ahead of prison conditions, offender rehabilitation and reentry. Similarly, problems like these have a demonstrated effect on worker safety, putting correctional officers at risk when inmate morale is impacted by subhuman, deplorable conditions. These problems are enough to make any government think twice about outsourcing prison services.” Short-term savings result in long-term costs.
In addition, SourceWatch reports that the CCA was converted into a real estate investment trust in 2013 to help the company avoid tens of millions of dollars in corporate taxes. “CCA’s revenue in 2013 was nearly $1.7 billion, and it had profits of $300 million, 100 percent of which came from taxpayers via government contracts.” Cost savings? We think not.
Most people who are imprisoned are going to return to their communities at some point. Numerous studies have shown that visitation and community connections are crucial in supporting people to reintegrate successfully and not re-offend.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we take issue with your deeply offensive characterization of family members of those who are imprisoned in Kentucky. Referring to members of our community as “sobbing moms” is disrespectful, provocative, and simply unnecessary. Make your arguments with which your readers can agree or disagree. Attempting to publicly shame and humiliate people who are suffering serves only to bring shame upon yourself.
Paul Marcus & Patricia Shine
“Send them all to Kentucky, we say. To Siberia, for all we care.”
Are the women who speak out about the pain they feel having their sons locked up miles away “sobbing moms”? Or are they among our most courageous citizens, braving derision and attack?
by David N. Adair, Jr. VCJR Board of Directors
The Justice Department has reported that the overall prison population in the United States rose slightly in 2013, reversing a trend of decline that began in 2009.