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