Editor’s note: This commentary is by Stuart Friedman, a clinical social worker and drug abuse counselor who has spent extensive time in China helping to develop community-based mental health programs. He lives in Middlesex.The appearance recently of officials from the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) before a special panel of the Vermont Legislature was of special interest to me as I visited the Lee Adjustment Center only three days earlier. This is the rural Kentucky facility that houses about 480 Vermont offenders under contract to the Vermont Department of Corrections. In the hearing, legislators grilled the CCA officials, focusing on staffing levels, pay and the training and experience of the staff.
These are important matters and warrant further investigation. But during my visit, during which I spent time with the warden and inmates and toured the entire facility, other serious matters emerged that should raise concern as well, for legislators and all Vermonters. There is no argument that those who offend society have earned some consequence, but unless we are to lock up people for their entire lives, we should also be concerned about their condition when they are eventually released and reintegrated into their families and community. By these measures it was my impression that the Kentucky facility is not a good bargain for Vermonters, whether offender, family member, or the public at large.
It is my view that treating people with dignity and respect, while holding them to some standard of conduct, is essential to an effective correctional system. In addition, unless we make it possible for those incarcerated to maintain close contact with friends and family, we minimize the benefit of those relationships and may even contribute to creating a new generation of offenders. The literature tells us that the presence of a father figure is important in building character in children, perhaps especially male children. Placing fathers a thousand miles from their children undermines this laudable goal.
Unless we make it possible for those incarcerated to maintain close contact with friends and family, we minimize the benefit of those relationships and may even contribute to creating a new generation of offenders.
There are other problems with the Kentucky prison that surfaced during my visit. Access to medical care, including mental health and drug abuse treatment, is very limited. I was told of waits up to three months to see a practitioner only to have problems minimized and under-treated. Several prisoners told me of their need for special diets to manage their diabetes, but were instead provided with meals rich in simple carbohydrates, poison to a diabetic. Activities that had once been available have been eliminated, and inmates spend considerable time in front of televisions and video game consoles. Much of the work, including cleaning and cooking, is performed by inmates and it is unclear how they are compensated for the work. This is especially unfortunate as developing good work habits requires reasonable incentives, and without good work habits recidivism is more likely.
But making a scapegoat of this particular facility is not going to solve our problems with our criminal justice approach. We need to look at a range of factors that have seen the prison population in Vermont double over the past 20 years. To me as a drug abuse counselor, one glaring issue is the way in which we have criminalized what is now widely regarded a medical problem, the use of drugs. Upwards of 80 percent of offenders have a drug problem, a problem that leads directly or indirectly to criminal behavior. Sentencing drug-dependent individuals to long terms in prison and then denying them access to programs that address the problem is a bad deal for the offenders, their families, and society at large.
We also need to recognize that poverty plays an important role in the lives of offenders. Interview any Vermont offender and the chances that you are talking to someone whose income is below the median is great (85 percent use a public defender, and approximately 10 percent represent themselves). Rich people don’t end up in prison, Madoffs of the world excepted. There are hundreds of Vermonters who remain incarcerated only because they lack appropriate housing. How much less expensive and how much more effective for all concerned to establish suitable residences for these individuals, get them back with their families, get them working, get them contributing to society. Our current practices undermine the achievement of these goals and warrant a thorough and professional review if all Vermonters are to be best served.