Commentary

Suzi Wizowaty: Suicide, death from beating, or medical condition?

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Suzi Wizowaty, who is the executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform. She is a former member of the Vermont House of Representatives.

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 the Vermont Department of Corrections will pay for. That may be true.

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.

 

I was asked several times last 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.

Which of these is true, if any? Did someone die? Was he killed? Has his family been notified? Is there an investigation? The state is responsible for locking people up. In a democracy, like it or not, the state means us, you and me. We are the ones who are ultimately responsible for the laws and practices that put people behind bars. And we have a right — and an obligation — to know what’s going on.

As distressing as such rumors are to us, we imagine they must be that much more frightening to family members. Was my son/husband/brother hurt? Is my boyfriend/nephew/uncle in danger? What’s happening?

Anxieties are running high at Lee Adjustment Center in Kentucky. The commissioner understands this, and I trust that he will do what he can to fill in family members and inmates about what can be expected with the move and at the new prison in Michigan. We’d like to know what happened at the Kentucky prison last week, as well.


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