Toward Freedom podcast

Dylan Kelly of Toward Freedom interviews VCJR Director Suzi Wizowaty and Jeremy Mackenzie on incarceration in Vermont.


Yet another death?

The news is out about the move of the men being held in Kentucky and Arizona: they’re going to Baldwin, Michigan, to a very large prison owned by GEO Group.   It’s a newer facility, and while this stark, antiseptic metal and concrete structure (as revealed in photos) strikes me as a horrible living condition for laboratory rats, let alone human beings, the place is supposed to have advantages overall, like video conferencing, which Vt. DOC will pay for.  That may be true.

I’ve been asked several times this week, “What’s the problem with sending men out of state?”  Most obviously, it’s hard on families who want to maintain contact with a loved one who has been sent there.   And maintaining that contact helps people when they’re released.

But here’s the bigger problem:  apparently within the last week, a man at Lee Adjustment Center in Kentucky died—and yet we can’t find out the details.  The problem with out-of-state prisons, aside from the grotesque immorality of making a profit off incarcerating human beings, is the lack of public oversight, and the difficulty in getting information about what’s really going on.   This is an example.  What actually happened?  Here’s what we’ve heard, originating from inmates or family members:  A man committed suicide.  A man was beaten by another man and died as a result.  A man was attacked by another with a sock holding a lock—a common weapon—and he died of his injuries.  A man died of a medical condition.


Another prisoner death

by Suzi Wizowaty, VCJR Director

Another prisoner has killed himself. Patrick Fennessey, 32, an inmate at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, attempted to hang himself Thursday.  He was taken to Dartmouth Hitchcock, still alive. But he died today in the hospital. 

In August, 2013, another inmate, Robert Mossey, hanged himself in a broom closet at Northwest State Correctional Facility in Newport.  His family is suing the Dept. of Corrections, alleging that DOC drove Mossey to suicide by keeping him in custody weeks after he could have been released, and by failing to monitor him after prescribing medication with psychological side effects. Mossey hanged himself three months after he began serving his sentence for retail theft.

Fennessey, too, was being held past his time of potential release.  He was serving a two-to-10-year sentence for burglary and unlawful trespass.  His minimum, or early release date, passed in 2011.  

These stories fill us with anguish. What will it take for enough of us to recognize that prisons by their nature are not places to “rehabilitate” people or “correct” behavior, but brutal, dehumanizing institutions, despite the best efforts of many decent, well-intentioned staff?

A criminal justice system that depends so heavily on incarceration as a tool is profoundly, perhaps irredeemably, flawed.Punishment doesn’t work. Inflicting suffering doesn’t help anyone. And now we have another death. Our hearts go out to the families of Patrick Fennessey.

“What can we change through telling our stories?”

It’s a fair question. Come to the state house Weds., 10-12, April 8, to find out.

To the inmate at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility who asked it, and all our supporters, a preview: We’re trying to change laws—no re-incarceration for technical violations, raise the felony trigger to $3,000, keep DOC from denying housing, and more. But we need to change Vermonters’ perceptions about the system (it’s not fine, it’s broken) and who’s caught up in it (not monsters, but people with mental health issues, addicts, ordinary people who have made mistakes and need support to get their lives back on track).


Bring Vermont Inmates Home

printed in the Valley News, Feb. 2015

To the Editor:

Thank you for the article by Laura Krantz of VtDigger covering the modest reduction in out-of-state placements in the Vermont Corrections system (“Vt. Out-of-State Prison Population to Dip,” Jan. 14).

I have become involved with Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, a group dedicated to ending the practice of sending inmates to for-profit prisons outside of Vermont. A recent count shows that there are more than 200 prisoners in Vermont who have finished their sentences or are eligible for parole but are being held, at an average cost of $57,000 per year, because of a lack of “approved housing.” At a time when towns all over the state are considering budget cuts, why are we sending $57,000 per year per person to a for-profit company (Corrections Corporation of America) to house these individuals when we could find 200 open spaces tomorrow?

This simple change would cut Vermont’s out-of-state prison population by 50 percent, and, each year, we would save the $22 million per year it costs to imprison these people longer than necessary. Even if we used some of this money to improve or expand housing stock, at least the money and jobs would stay here in Vermont, not help pay for the CCA executive jet fleet and $3.2 million annual CEO compensation.

– Tom Cecere

Locked Up & Shipped Away: Paying the Price for Vermont’s Response to Prison Overcrowding

locked up shipped away vt-200Grassroots Leadership's report "Locked Up & Shipped Away: Paying the Price for Vermont’s Response to Prison Overcrowding" has been released. Download a copy of the report in PDF format.

Did CCA Neglect Lead to Inmate's Death?

Performance Piece in the Works

performance web

L to R, Kelly Jane Thomas, Kim Jordan and Jena Necrason (with Suzi Wizowaty, 2nd from R), the artists who created “Intersections,” a performance piece about the criminal justice system. The work-in-progress was workshopped at Main St. Landing in Burlington on April 25. It will premiere in Flynn Space in November. Watch for more public workshops in the interim! “Complex, difficult issues; powerful material pulled from inmates’ letters and the artists’ own experiences; and talented creator-performers—a winning combination. It’s a strong, moving piece,” said Wizowaty. Watch for more info this summer.

Wrong Assumptions About Rightness

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.


New Report Demonstrates Ineffectiveness of Incarceration

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.  


No more new crimes

     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.

Letter to the Caledonian Record Editor

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
Concord, Vermont

“Keep Away”

“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?


Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform
PO Box 8753, Burlington, VT 05402
(802) 540-0440

Contact us:

Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform 
is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization

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