It’s time to close the women’s prison

By BILL SCHUBART

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Bill Schubart, a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio who lives in Hinesburg. This piece was first aired on VPR.

As the Legislature and the Department of Corrections consider how to repatriate the Vermont prisoners housed in Mississippi, several legislators see the larger picture. We don’t need new prisons. We need to address the causes of crime such as poverty, abuse and addiction and develop more cost-effective alternatives to incarceration, like treatment, training and restorative justice.

There’s mounting support for closing the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility this year and transitioning the few women who need supervision to the existing system with extra protections as necessary.

Mass incarceration has reached a cultural and economic crisis point. The U.S. jails more of its citizens per capita than any other major world power including China and Russia. Conservatives and liberals agree on the need to reform sentencing, reduce our reliance on incarceration, and create opportunities for people transitioning from supervision back into our communities.

In Vermont we spend about $85,000 annually to keep a woman in prison and about $50,000 for each man – at best, an investment in recidivism. This does not include the cost of caring for the hundreds of children of incarcerated parents. We should be thinking how we might invest in healing the damage, both for the victims of crime and those resorting to criminal behavior. We should invest in people not punishments.

The Chittenden facility, was built originally to confine 100 men. Now a shambles, the Department of Corrections is resisting efforts by the ACLU, VTDigger, and criminal justice reform groups to release data and information on conditions inside.

It houses some 150 women. About a dozen have violent histories and need supervision. Another 25 or so have committed property crimes stemming from simple greed, poverty or addiction. The rest are either detainees awaiting trial and too poor to post bail or are past their release dates but have no viable housing options. Most share a history of trauma including abuse, neglect or addiction, for which they receive little or no support.

We’re better than this. It’s time to close the women’s prison.

There will always be a need to supervise people who have committed violent offenses but there are more effective ways to deal with those who haven’t than jail time. Restorative justice, circles of support and accountability, transitional housing and mental health treatment options are less expensive and offer a redemptive path back to community and economic independence.

It’s easy to blame the Department of Corrections for this deplorable situation. But they don’t put people in prisons; they manage them for better or for worse. Prosecutors, judges, police, legislators and, yes, we Vermonters do. We elect our prosecutors and legislators. We oversee appointed judges and police. Our entire criminal justice system reflects our belief in punishment as a deterrent to crime. Until we get over this myth and rethink our criminal justice system with a goal of helping people to safely re-enter society equipped to lead productive lives, we’ll continue to waste money and lives building prisons.

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