Alternative Proposal to Governor Scott’s Prison Complex Plan
[This response to the Governor's prison complex was jointly written and submitted by a coalition of concerned advocates, including VCJR]
A coalition representing incarcerated individuals and their families, people of color, disability rights, civil rights, and agencies and professionals who serve vulnerable populations has reviewed Governor Scott’s plan for a 925-bed prison and mental health compound and we find it to be the wrong approach. It takes Vermont back 20 years in terms of relying on institutions instead of prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and community integration. We do not believe it will solve the societal problems that too often lead to incarceration and institutionalization, passing on suffering from one generation to the next. We do not believe it will solve the problems of over-incarceration for people of color, women, non-violent offenders, people who struggle with addiction, poor people, LGBTQ people and persons with mental health issues. The proposal is dangerous for Vermonters of color - and other vulnerable populations - and it flies in the face of our state and federal justice system’s charge and efforts to move away from incarceration and toward community-based intervention and accountability.
Therefore, we propose the legislature form a Commission on Corrections and Incarceration to do a thorough review of Corrections policy in Vermont and propose legislation to address the many concerns. While many financial and logistical details have not been fully developed yet, we believe there are much better, more humane, and more cost-effective solutions. For example, according to a 2015 DOC report it costs approximately $73,000 per year per bed in the women’s facility. That money would buy a tremendous amount of services, especially if matched with federal Medicaid dollars. We believe this, not a large prison complex, should form the basis of the public debate in the legislature.
Our call for an alternative plan is informed by the following:
- the daily census of incarcerated individuals includes up to 400 people who really do not need to be in prison. Many are there as detainees - not as convicted offenders; many others serve time beyond their minimum sentence simply for lack of approved housing;
- a substantial percentage of female inmates are non-violent, and many are serving time for technical violations of parole, not criminal offenses;
- large prison complexes work against safety of staff and prisoners and work against our policy of successful community re-integration which directly impacts recidivism.
Our coalition acknowledges that:
- our current facilities need to be upgraded;
- the youth facility needs to be re-furbished or replaced and re-established as a treatment facility independent and separate from a large complex;
- the mental health and corrections systems need to devise a sufficient and quality facility for a small number of forensic mental health patients;
- Vermonters in out-of-state facilities should be returned to Vermont; and,
- this work should be done by Vermonters, not private for-profit corporations.
Yes, it is time to take bold action. However, the proposed 925 bed correctional complex is the wrong approach. It would be a failure of self-reflection for Vermont not to consider this juncture an opportunity to do something radically different. What we’ve been doing isn’t working. Recidivism rates are high. Punishment takes precedence over rehabilitation. There is mounting evidence that pro-longed sentences increase criminogenic behavior. There is also mounting evidence that adverse childhood experience (ACEs) and trauma are at the root of the mental health, addiction, and social challenges that often lead to involvement in the criminal justice system. The approach which will most make our communities stronger, healthier - and safer - is to decrease the number of people who are locked up, and re-direct resources to provide better prevention, treatment, and support for individuals and families.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Vermont’s current state laws provide guidance:
§ 1. Purposes
(a) The department of corrections created by section 3081 of Title 3 shall have the purpose of developing and administering a correctional program designed to protect persons and property against offenders of the criminal law and to render treatment to offenders with the goal of achieving their successful return and participation as citizens of the state and community, to foster their human dignity and to preserve the human resources of the community.
(b) The department shall formulate its programs and policies recognizing that almost all criminal offenders ultimately return to the community, and that the traditional institutional prisons fail to reform or rehabilitate, operating instead to increase the risk of continued criminal acts following release. The department shall develop and implement a comprehensive program which will provide necessary closed custodial confinement of frequent, dangerous offenders, but which also will establish as its primary objective the disciplined preparation of offenders for their responsible roles in the open community. The department shall ensure that the comprehensive program required by this subsection includes a process by which each offender sentenced to any term of imprisonment other than for life without parole, within 30 days after receiving his or her sentence, shall begin to develop and implement a plan preparing for return to the community.
(c) In order to implement its programs and policies the department shall develop and maintain correctional facilities which shall include both residence-centered institutions and facilities reflecting non-residence principles designed to facilitate the reintegration of the offender into the community. These facilities shall utilize the supporting resources of probation and parole services, the increased cooperation of personnel in the fields of welfare, health and education, and the increased participation of the citizens of the state in attempts to achieve correctional purposes and objectives. (Added 1971, No. 199 (Adj. Sess.), § 20; amended 2005, No. 63, §17.)
These principles are compatible with an alternative approach. We ask that the Commission review the following questions and propose appropriate and effective legislative responses:
How could Vermont:
1. Incarcerate fewer people? The state has made progress on this front over the past decade, but more can be done. We believe if the services described below were expanded along with sentencing reform (only 3-5% of Vermonters can afford a private attorney), bail reform (many detainees cannot afford bail) and fair and impartial policing, the state could reduce the prison population significantly more, while also strengthening our communities and enhancing public safety.
2. Acknowledge and mitigate the systemic racism in our criminal justice system? One in fourteen black and brown men in Vermont are incarcerated, a higher ratio than in any other state. Likewise, nationally black and brown people are incarcerated in state correctional facilities at a rate that is 5 times the imprisonment of whites. Vermont is one of five states in which the disparity is more than 10 to 1. Governor Scott's proposed venture poses a multitude of problems for Vermonters of color who also face discrimination at multiple points in the criminal justice system including police contact, as noted in a recent study by the Vermont State Police, as well as access granted to alternatives to incarceration, and sentencing, as evidenced by research conducted by the Sentencing Project. We have work to do, and it is going to take state-funded and data-driven initiatives to mitigate systematic racism. S.281 and H.868, acts relating to the Systemic Racism Mitigation Oversight and Equity Review Board, should be supported.
3. Expand community mental health services and also improve the treatment that is offered to prisoners? Too many people with mental health issues end up in prison, and stay stuck in prison, for lack of mental health services. The majority of people who are incarcerated struggle with some form of mental health or substance abuse issue, but most receive only medication and infrequent or minimal therapeutic options. Prisons were not designed to be psychiatric facilities and deal poorly with people in mental health crisis. By relying too much on segregation for protection they reinforce trauma. This impacts both incarceration and institutionalization, and the solution is not more beds. It is important to note that while this large and expensive compound is being proposed, services for community mental health are level funded. Community based prevention and treatment is critical; this is where our primary investments should be made, while remembering that it is the State’s duty to provide prisoners medical and mental health care that meets community standards for ethical best practices.
4. Expand rehabilitation services for both men and women? There are successful models of programs and housing that provide supports for effective reintegration in Vermont, but they are at best level funded and, in some cases, they have ended. If people who are incarcerated do not receive appropriate treatment, job training and help re-integrating into the community, they are set-up for failure. This is avoidable. The State would be well served to expand and properly fund programs like Dismas House, Resilience Beyond Incarceration, CoSA’s and other re-integration services that Community Justice Centers provide.
5. Develop supportive and transitional housing? It is estimated that there are approximately 120 people in prison because they cannot find appropriate and safe housing. Transitional and supportive housing is needed as well as rental subsidies. The Department of Corrections could also relax its unnecessarily strict requirements for what is considered acceptable housing.
6. Prevent or reduce the adverse effects on the children of incarcerated persons? Children who experience the trauma of parental incarceration are three times more likely to have serious physical and mental health problems, learning disabilities, school failure, delinquency, and eventual incarceration themselves. Expand services like those offered by Kids-A-Part, and Resilience Beyond Incarceration so they are available to support children, parents, and caregivers statewide, both in correctional facilities and in communities. The AHS 2015 report to the Vermont legislature (in accordance with H.325 / Act 168) summarizes ample data suggesting that intervening in the lives of incarcerated parents and their children to preserve and strengthen positive family connections can yield many benefits including: promotion of healthy child development; reduced recidivism; and less intergenerational criminal justice system involvement.
7. Better utilize existing vacant facilities? Buildings, such as Maple Leaf Farm or closed nursing homes, which were designed to create a more therapeutic environment could be used for necessary treatment and transitional housing
8. Provide current and helpful data? To responsibly move forward with any plan to address the real challenges that the proposal was meant to address, we need data. Historically, the DOC published comprehensive reports outlining who is being incarcerated and why. This data is no longer available and makes tracking progress and/or regressions impossible.
9. Re-direct funding for better results? The mega-compound plan will cost the state a huge amount of money both for construction and for on-going operations. Most of that money would be better used to invest in the prevention, treatment and rehabilitation services herein discussed. A significant amount of current dollars should be re-directed from incarceration to community services.
10. Provide better drug treatment and mental health services in facilities? Sudden withdrawal and lack of mental health care traumatizes people who are incarcerated and sets them up for future failure. In 2014 (latest available data) 70% of women and 44% of men were receiving mental health services. It is important to note that this does not speak to the types of treatment, frequency, availability or quality of the services provided. While the Department of Corrections has made strides in increasing accessibility to medicated assisted treatment, there is more work to do. Statutorily, people who are incarcerated should have access to the same medical care as those who are not.
11. Restore job training and educational opportunities in correctional facilities? Examples would include those that once existed at the women’s facility, like gardening, construction, cosmetology, etc. Strengthen job programs in the community for people reentering the community.
12. Use Vermont contractors and employees? As noted there is a need for improving the current infrastructure of our state facilities. Any construction should strengthen our own economy and not be done by an out of state, privatized, corrections corporation. There is no role for them here in Vermont. Their experience is in designing facilities to contain, not to rehabilitate and reintegrate. Whatever facility may be ultimately constructed it should not be constructed or operated by a private entity.
13. Assure that we are addressing the root causes that lead to criminal justice involvement, and not simply perpetuating the cycle from one generation to the next? The scientific evidence is clear: abuse, neglect, mental illness, substance use, poverty, homelessness, discrimination, incarceration of a parent - all of these create toxic stress and compromise our capacity to cope. We must turn this curve in a better direction. S.261, an act related to mitigating trauma and toxic stress in childhood by strengthening child and family resilience should be supported.
In summary, the Governor’s proposal has ignited a conversation that is a great opportunity to consider our over-reliance on incarceration in lieu of better alternatives, and to review the overall policy of Corrections. We should take advantage of this opportunity to strengthen prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation services, and to address systemic issues of racism, bail reform and sentencing reform, and to support opiate treatment, mental health, job training and housing.
We ask for a legislative commission to consider the questions outlined above. To do this correctly, we need data from DOC, and a fully engaged public and legislative discussion of the future, a future that should mean a reduction in the number of inmates, not a huge new prison complex.
This proposal is respectfully submitted by the following organizations:
The Vermont Center for Independent Living
Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform
Disability Rights Vermont
Resilience Beyond Incarceration
The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont
Justice for All
With thanks to former public servants Con Hogan and Patrick Flood for their help in this work.