Commentary

Timothy Burgess: Prisoners in Pennsylvania is not the solution

Vermont inmates are now going to Pennsylvania. That’s good news … or is it? Vermont recently signed a three-year contract with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to house Vermont inmates. We get to add more inmates to the out-of-state warehousing program, though we’ve been assured that won’t happen. So now we no longer will be relying on the insidious private prison system, and our inmates are going to be housed closer to home. Vermont is falling in line with the incarceration nation.

Does anybody find it curious in an age when the goal is to close prisons, Pennsylvania has opened their state prisons to take in Vermont inmates? Pennsylvania is closing some of its facilities for a number of reasons, among them a drop in population and the age and condition of the facilities. Vermont needs to find a different solution to the overcrowding problem rather than shipping our inmates to states with aging, empty facilities. The public employees of the Keystone State will be able to maintain their jobs, while Vermont public employees lose out on this deal.

Let’s not forget that there was a proposal this year to close one of our own facilities, the Windsor farm. There appears to be some creative maneuvering in place to make good use of the space, nevertheless we are shipping inmates out of state and repurposing facilities in this state.

“While out-of-state, I was warehoused, I learned nothing good, except that prison life leads to awful habits and lack of responsibility. So, Vermont inmates are being moved to Pennsylvania and we are making room for more to go there, well that news is not so good after all.”

 

Let us not forget, too, the transportation of the inmates from Baldwin, Michigan, to Pennsylvania. There was a report by Grassroots Leadership in conjunction with Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform in 2013, in which an inmate describes the transportation process: “John, (who preferred we did not use his real name) was transferred to a private prison in Kentucky in 2006, said he had no clue what was happening when officers came into his Vermont cell in the middle of the night, told him to get up and grab his things, and refused to answer when asked where he was going. Shackled to the person next to him, he endured the 36-hour bus ride, still without any idea where he would end up …” The transport process sounds like an awful process, filled with inhumane treatment; in my view the only transport for these men should be back to Vermont. Other men soiled themselves because they could only use the facilities when allowed, even in emergencies. The report went on to state: “The transfer to Kentucky stripped John of access to rehabilitative programs, which simply did not exist at the private prison in Kentucky. Now out of prison and back in Vermont, John regularly advocates for prisoners’ rights, and said, ‘This practice of transferring inmates out-of-state is horrendous. You’re taking people who, whatever support network they may have, is gone. The truth of the matter is [that as an incarcerated person] you’re alone. You’re isolated.’”

Vermont is not only promoting this kind of treatment, in the transfer of inmates, but is continuously allowing inmates to be warehoused with little or no opportunity to work on programs that help them with the reintegration process.

There are the critics in our little state who will say that the further away these bad people are, the better we are. These people are someone’s son, brother, maybe father. Many will come back into our communities. Confining them away from our communities and denying them access to programs for a chance for rehabilitation denies the communities, the victims and the victims’ families an opportunity to repair the harm done.

I served my time. I took part in the programming — initially very reluctantly — but what I got out of the program that I was involved in is that I committed a crime that not only affected the victim, but also the victim’s family, my family, the community I was living in here in Vermont, and the harm caused impacted Vermont. While out of state, I was warehoused, I learned nothing good, except that prison life leads to awful habits and lack of responsibility. So Vermont inmates are being moved to Pennsylvania and we are making room for more to go there. That news is not so good after all.

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  • John Klar

    All very good points. Reducing the incarceration rate by ending the failed drug war would reduce the prison populations and the stigma attached to nonviolent self-harming offenders. Compassion is a powerful human trait. In Law School I was taught that there are four basic purposes behind incarceration: deterrence, retribution, reformation, and incapacitation. The heroin epidemic starkly demonstrates that incarceration has failed as a drug-abuse deterrent. Society is owed no retribution for self-harm. Temporary incapacitation is counter-productive when convicts are released more alienated and dysfunctional than when admitted. This leaves only reformation, which is unserved when human beings are treated as cattle or industrial proles, shipped out-of-state and untrained for productive re-entry.

  • Edward Letourneau

    Here is a solution. Change the culture to one that impresses on people that if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime! Its really very simple.

    • John Klar

      Irrelevant to the issue. You might as well embrace “cruel and unusual punishment” on the same callous premise. When people “do the crime”, society suffers the consequence when they are returned to public life corrupted and scarred.