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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  • Fred Woogmaster

    Imprisoned by the State; lodged within the State. It ought to be a law. What DID happen?

    Sending prisoners away is a clear demonstration that Vermont is not committed to the preservation of families – at least not THEIR families.

    Children? Nearly invisible.

    Sending Vermont prisoners away is, was and always will be terrible public policy.

    We save pennies today. The costs down the line will be huge.

  • Wendy Wilton

    Vermont won’t own up and build a new prison of its own. So we send our worst out of state and let the least out of jail making it easy for them to re-offend. Until VT spends the money and takes care of its own it’s still less expensive to send them out of state, and we will continue to slap the wrist of many until their crimes escalate to the point where they too end up in prison out of state. Never ending cycle.

  • Anne Donahue

    It isn’t always about cost, either. It’s about “not in my backyard.” We can’t locate facilities in Vermont. The last attempt to build a new minimum-security work camp for low -risk, non-violent offenders failed because no town would accept it.

    • Fred Woogmaster

      Perhaps it is time to try again. Many things have changed.

  • Dave Bellini

    I don’t think the state of Vermont needs permission from a town to build a state prison. The real reason Vermont has prisoners out of state is the dysfunction at our state house. When Windsor prison closed it should have been replaced with a larger prison. Instead, VT chose to build several Mickey Mouse jails throughout the state. Chittenden was built for 88. How stupid is that? The old Rutland and St. Johnsbury facilities were replaced with ridiculously small jails. St. Albans was a kiddie camp and also too small. Newport was built a little bigger but by then it was also way too small. Springfield was put up but Woodstock was taken off line. Over time, mismanagement and denial created numerous tiny but overcrowded “prison-ettes.” Very expensive way to do business too. The ultra-liberals that decried “big box prisons” and built these ridiculous little jails, created the very situation they most wanted to avoid: putting Vermonters in “big box prisons.” Really big box prisons. As a result, there was and is no room. Another unintended consequence is that Vermont has become extremely lenient on crime and criminals. NOT,,, because we are so avant-garde,,, but because we don’t have room.

    • Wendy Wilton

      Dave your recounting of the history of VT corrections is right on.

  • Fred Woogmaster

    Many of those incarcerated have completed their sentences and are eligible for release into the community – except for: No Approved Housing. The sole approving authority? Department of Corrections. Correct?

    The State (We The People) pay CCA and other contractors more than $60.00 a day for as many as 200 inmates in that situation. Correct?

    If we can’t do better than that it means that profit prevails; gravy to the contractors.

    It can’t be so. My information must be faulty.

  • Meg McCarthy

    Many comments here miss the point. Vermont doesn’t need more prisons, it needs fewer prisoners. Even though Vermont, thank goodness, lags way behind states like Louisiana and Alabama and California in imprisoning its citizens, it still far outstrips many third-world countries. In fact, using prison to solve our social problems is the band-aid. Anyone who thinks the longer a person spends in prison, the less likely they are to commit a crime once released, has not been paying attention.

    • Fred Woogmaster

      An excellent reminder. Thank you.

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