Advocates identify ways to reduce Vermont’s inmate population

Suzi Wizowaty, executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, speaks at Wednesday's news conference. Behind her is Sha’an Mouliert, whose son is in a Kentucky prison. Photo by Laura Krantz/VTDigger

Suzi Wizowaty, executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, speaks at Wednesday’s news conference. Behind her is Sha’an Mouliert, whose son is in a Kentucky prison. Photo by Laura Krantz/VTDigger

It was New Year’s Eve in 2009. Sha’an Mouliert was with a friend and the phone rang. She knew it was her son, calling collect from prison in Kentucky.

Mouliert had told herself she wouldn’t answer those calls. They’re too expensive. The first month Yasin was in prison, her phone bill was more than $2,000, she said.

But it was New Year’s Eve, so she answered anyway.

Mouliert and others who spoke Wednesday in the Statehouse described what it is like to be imprisoned out of state or to have a loved one there.

“As a grandmother, my family is shattered,” Mouliert said.

She has not seen Yasin, 32, since 2007, after he was convicted of sexual assault. He has never met one of his own sons, who are now ages 8 and 10, she said.

Mouliert told her story at a Wednesday State House event hosted by Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, which opposes Vermont’s use of private, out-of-state prisons.

VCJR sought to advance its cause by identifying ways to reduce Vermont’s inmate population and therefore end the need for its contract with Corrections Corp. of America, a for-profit prison operator.

The state has paid CCA about $61 million over four years to house about 500 prisoners in Kentucky and Arizona. Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito said he agrees the practice is not ideal, but for now there are no other options.

The advocates’ ideas

Seth Lipschutz, a lawyer who oversees the Prisoners’ Rights Office in the Defender General’s office and is a member of the VCJR board, listed a number of ways to reduce the prison population.

Ideas include making drug possession for personal use a misdemeanor and therefore not punishable with prison time. People charged with nonviolent crimes should be diverted to restorative justice programs, as should violent offenders in cases where victims agree, the advocates said.

Absent exceptional circumstances, they said, no one should be incarcerated for technical violations of conditions of release and furlough should not be denied inmates because of lack of housing.

In addition, they advocated for a “compassionate release” program for elderly prisoners or those who have significant illness or health problems and do not pose a risk to public safety.

“I have not had the time to review all of their recommendations but I did review an early draft,” Pallito said. “There are some items which we will be able to support and others which we will clearly not. All of this is dependent on what the Legislature decides to move forward with and in what form.”

Other voices

Rep. Warren Kitzmiller, D-Montpelier, also spoke at the news conference, saying he has “serious problems” with the for-profit nature of private prisons. Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the ACLU believes it is unconstitutional.

Also speaking at the event were a former inmate and the wife of a prisoner serving his sentence in Kentucky. They raised questions about the quality of health care and the lack of educational or vocational training at the facility.

Meg McCarthy, whose husband, Richard Gagnon, is serving 17 years for second-degree murder, described how her husband’s sore throat went untreated for at least seven weeks but was eventually discovered to be lymphoma.

Tim Burgess, who served two of his five years in prison in Kentucky, described the Lee Adjustment Center in Beattyville, Kentucky, as a “warehouse” for people to do time.

“We as inmates in these facilities have no contact, no networks that we can see on a consistent basis,” Burgess said.

VCJR is drafting a bill to reduce inmate populations, in hopes of getting a lawmaker to sponsor it.

The group also released a study produced with Texas-based national group Grassroots Leadership, which is pushing for the end of private prisons across the country.

The study focuses on Vermont’s out-of-state prison population and advocates for an end to the practice.

“This policy is a costly Band-Aid,” said Holly Kirby, who produced the study.

Laura Krantz

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  • Bill Olenick

    Prison organic farms in state whose production can be used to feed the poor and needy with barrack type housing and the farms also raising critters to feed same.
    This will utilize resources the state already has and these farms should have workshops where the prisoners can make things the state uses such as highway signs,snowplows,school desks and supplies ect, utilizing timber resources taken from the farms where possible.
    They will learn the value of hard work and learn trades they can use when their time is finished. Local for local and common sense for common sense works if applied correctly.

    • Pat McGarry

      If dairy farms didn’t employ undocumented workers, hiring parolees would make sense (as room & board is usually provided).

  • Bryan Bouchard

    Not one example of someone serving a sentence for a minor violation of the law. These people belong in jail and they need to be treated as though they broke the law. There is nothing wrong with shipping criminals out of state and cutting access from their loved ones. These people aren’t away at college or serving their country in the armed services. They are in Jail!

  • Dan Carver

    I hate to think we are paying $50,000 a year to keep Michael Jacques alive; raper and murderer of his teenaged niece, Brooke Bennet back in 2009.

    He is probably complaining about his lack of educational opportunities and health care, while he serves his life sentence.

    At a time when we can’t feed or provide for law abiding citizens, violent criminals, like Jacques, should have their last breathe at the end of a rope.

  • Rich Lachapelle

    Suzi, so nice to finally have you step down from the legislature. I guess the field of individuals and groups who advocate for decent, respectable people is too crowded so you choose to take the side of folks who prey upon others? Try to have a bit of empathy for Vermont’s crime victims, some of whom also endure daily struggles because of the trauma they have suffered at the hands of those you coddle. One single convict can leave behind dozens of victims. Incarceration is not the act of society seeking it’s pound of flesh. For those repeat violent offenders who show no remorse or any indication of a possibility for rehabilitation, society is well served by “warehousing” them where they can no longer harm others. Vermont’s liberal/progressive criminal justice system only locks up the worst of the worst and they are not worthy of our sympathy as they made their own decisions that got them where they are. Their supposed “right” to be held in a location convenient for family members to visit them is just as subject to curtailment as any other rights that a prisoner loses when they CHOSE to commit their criminal acts. The private for-profit prisons are an outrage as a matter of principle but there needs to be some accountability to the Vermont taxpayer as well in how we handle our worst offenders.
    Vermont prisons are just too lavish and expensive for our worst offenders.

    • Fred Woogmaster

      According to recently released information, Mr. Lachapelle, 250 individuals (men?) are being held in prison for significant periods of time after their release date for “lack of appropriate housing”.

      DOC establishes the rules. CCA must continue to benefit from such a circumstance. How many of those prisoners held beyond ‘their time’ are held in CCA facilities?

  • Stephanie Jackson

    Again, VT is not the progressive nor liberal state many of you think it is. It certainly does not lock up only the worst of the worst. Many individuals are in jail for lengthy periods of time for crimes where restoration should be made to the victim, not the state. Folks advocating for reform, including myself, do not lack compassion for victims, and as a matter of fact victims are often at the forefront of our thinking.

    Incarceration breeds more crime, not less. Rich, I’m thinking you have not been to a VT prison if you think they are too lavish for offenders. Being cut off from all human contact, with no purpose, no rules that say you have to work, no meaningful way to rehabilitate is not lavish – it is cruel and it is unnecessary. I would like you to consider that many of the policies and practices at VT prisons are no less harsh than anywhere else – where correctional officers have free rein to do anything, say anything with no accountability. It is like saying we should hit kids, to teach them that hitting is wrong.

    There are better alternatives.

  • Rich Lachapelle

    I would like to propose two locations for inmates who have lapsed out their sentences but are having trouble finding adequate housing. Surely Suzy Wizowaty and Stephanie Jackson have a spare room or two that can accommodate a few of these “rehabilitated” individuals. As for restorative justice, I’m sure that the victims of assaults and burglaries would also like to invite the offenders over to mow their lawns and wash their cars. See, creative solutions to difficult problems…

    • Angela Bennett

      Now, that is an idea! Put your ideas where your mouth is. Dust off your guestroom and house an ex-convict. Have their family over for regular visits. Let them sit your children while you are at work. And walk your dog. Oh. NIMBY?? Hmmm…

  • Tom White

    This could become a very constructive conversation. The member of the Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform should be advancing alternatives to incarceration. It’s not enough to simply remove people from the prison population, it is more important to construct models for appropriate treatment of people who violate the law. Fines and jail sentences cannot be the whole answer and I see some alternatives that should get serious consideration. I wish I had good suggestions for how to “punish” some of the people who break the law without jail time, but right now the best I have is to say, “Let’s talk about it, let’s see what we come up with.”

  • Dana MacLeod

    I was housed in Kentucky via Vermont for two years….for a DUI in which no accident occurred. CCA is a horrible for-profit company with no incentive to rehabilitate….it answers to its stockholders. Gang violence, sexual abuse, underpaid and undertrained guards, a lackluster administration, and a lack of educational and/or recreational outlets would not be tolerated within the borders of Vermont. The Green Mountain state–PROGRESSIVE…. hardly! We didn’t all rape someone’s grandmother….

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