Commentary

Bock: Greenfield jail riot a symptom of pressure-cooker conditions

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Gordon Bock of Northfield. He is a prisoner advocate with the Vermont's Corrections Citizens Advisory Group, which consists of volunteers who advise the Corrections Department on policy issues.

The recent outbreak in a Massachusetts jail housing inmates from Vermont serves to remind us that saving money on the state's prison budget is crucial, especially in a tight economy, but a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach can instill needless anger, tension and resentment in the person who is incarcerated.

Unless the inmate is on death row in a death-penalty state (which Vermont, with rare possible exception in federal murder cases, is not) or unless a Vermont judge imposes "life without" (parole, that is), the person on whom we senselessly heap turmoil will someday be on the streets — maybe in your neighborhood -- ready perhaps to "pay forward" the stress.

The Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC) in 2010 contracted with Massachusetts' Franklin County to house about 100 Vermont prisoners in its Jail and House of Corrections in Greenfield, Mass. The goals, then stated by Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito, were two-fold: 1. trim daily per-inmate costs (versus Vermont facilities); 2. allow Vermont families to stay in better touch with incarcerated loved ones just over the border from Brattleboro instead of way down, for example, in Kentucky.

Using the Greenfield facility instead of other out-of-state sites is likely to save Vermont taxpayers more than $357,000 per year, projections supplied by DOC to the Legislature show. But in Greenfield, as in any prison setting, it's about more than just the numbers.

There is a human cost in the equation. Family members of those incarcerated at the Greenfield facility when havoc erupted on July 7 complain that:

Some Greenfield cells built for two men have been holding three.

There is no outside recreation and thus no "steam-valve" relief in the form of a vigorous basketball or volleyball contest that can mitigate the effect of keeping testosterone in a cage.

Visits to the medium-security jail occur in the classic maximum-security scenario seen in movies and television, with inmate and loved one talking on phones separated by a thick glass pane.

So what? Well, the 101 Vermonters listed as being in Greenfield on July 7 — said to be non-violent inmates, pre-trial detainees and those who await outside housing or bed space in treatment programs — if in Vermont would be in facilities that are at, or below, capacity, as Pallito has been able to report proudly to lawmakers in recent months.  (For the record, Vermont DOC officials said July 12 that the Greenfield facility was under capacity, too, with no "triple-bunking").

In the Green Mountains, however, the Greenfield guys would have access to outside recreational facilities, including basketball courts, volleyball pits and tracks for running or walking (Swanton's Northwest State Correctional Facility boasts room for all three, and in an area the size of a football field or two). In Vermont, cooing infants bounce on the lap of dad — the lower-risk inmate in open visiting rooms — with perhaps the baby's mom and other kin on hand maintaining the bond with family and friends that penologists widely acknowledge to be integral in ensuring rehabilitation — and reintegration into society — versus the likelihood of future stays in jail.

This type of inequity — where an inmate at Greenfield knows that he is receiving less access to loved ones and less ability to let off steam than counterparts incarcerated within a few hours' drive to the north — foments uprising, insurrection, whatever appellation you give a situation fraught with aggravation.

When the "Greenfield 101" trickle back to Vermont, being short-timers and detainees, they will return way sooner than most of the other 95 percent of Vermont's 2,100 inmates. They will be at home, at work and at play with you — me — our loved ones.

No sane citizen promotes coddling criminals. Only sociopaths condone or, worse yet, hail a riot. But in Greenfield, prisoners get a far more restrictive prison setting than the bulk of all other Vermont inmates — and know it. The question is not why there was a disturbance in Greenfield, but why it took so long to occur. Let's fix this mess.

 


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