(Host) Earlier this month, a dozen state senators boarded a bus for a bumpy ride to prison. They’re trying to figure out what to do about the chronic overcrowding in Vermont’s corrections system. They heard firsthand from inmates and drug offenders about successful alternatives to prison.
VPR’s John Dillon has more.
(Dillon) The Valley Vista drug treatment center in Bradford is a bright, freshly painted one-story building. There’s a nurses’ station in the center and hallways that fan out like spokes of a wheel. A sign on a wall says “Valley Vista, An Oasis in the Desert of Addiction.”
Executive Director Jack Duffy leads the tour of lawmakers.
(Duffy) “This is our administrative area, this would be where basically patients would come in. We have our intake offices over here on the right. We can admit probably up to five patients a day, seems to work.”
(Dillon) Valley Vista opened in August with 40 beds for women. This month about 32 patients were there, and about 30 percent of them were sent from the Corrections Department. A 16-bed adolescent unit will open soon.
Most of the senators on the tour know the facts behind the corrections overcrowding crisis. Vermont spends more on its prison system than it does for its state colleges. The eight state correctional centers are so overcrowded that the state has shipped about 450 inmates to Kentucky.
Yet the prison population, which has doubled over the past decade, continues to grow out of control. The situation for women offenders is especially severe. Over the last decade, the number of women in Vermont prisons grew by 500 percent. Most are there for crimes related to drug or alcohol abuse.
Those are the statistics. In Bradford, senators learned more about the people behind the numbers.
(Jane) “I would like to make it very clear that prison for people who are addicts is horrific.”
(Dillon) A woman we’ll call Jane spills out her story. A drunk driving arrest landed her in the women’s prison in Windsor, where she says she got little help for her addiction. The senators lean forward to listen, as Jane pleads with them to fund more treatment programs.
(Jane) “People would still be under guard or whatever, but they would be in recovery and not warehoused in those horrible, horrible, dungeons and prisons that we are sent to. Because it just was the most horrifying experience that I had to go through. And everybody there – these are kids for crying out loud. They should be taken care of and not just housed in these old prisons.”
(Dillon) If you hadn’t just heard the story about her battle with addiction, you might mistake Jane for a member of the center’s staff. She’s articulate and professionally dressed. She’s about to look for work and doesn’t want her real name made public.
As the senators file out of the room, Jane says the Bradford program works because it combines a traditional 12-step treatment plan with intensive therapy that tries to get at the root of a person’s addiction.
(Jane) “We’re talking about life issues. We’re not talking about somebody who goes into a bar and just drinks too much. We’re talking about issues that affect this person’s life. It’s where they came from, it what makes them tick. If those issues are not addressed, they’re probably going to go out and use again.”
(Dillon) The delegation is back on the bus for the ride up to the St. Johnsbury prison work camp. The conversation turns to what they’ve just heard.
Senator Jim Leddy, a Burlington Democrat who chairs the Health and Welfare Committee, is a longtime advocate for drug treatment. But he points out that there’s also a desperate need for more housing for people leaving jail, as well as job training so they can re-enter the workforce.
(Leddy) “The state made an investment in this program and that investment will fail unless the other parts of the system are there. Because if they do not have the housing and if they don’t have the supports and all of those things, then what we have bought is a time-out in a nice place that people feel good about and get good care. And the failure won’t be on the residential program, it will be on the absence of other critical pieces to make that happen.”
(Dillon) The bus heads north through a driving snowstorm to St. Johnsbury, home to a prison and a work camp for non-violent offenders. The first stop is the prison, next door to the work camp.
Inside the prison, some inmates live three to an 8 x 12 cell. It has two bunks, and the third sleeping area – it’s not really a bed – is underneath a shelf. The cell is stuffy and smells like old laundry.
The prison was built for 97 inmates, then retrofitted to hold 10 more. In cell number 5, roommates Chris and Sean say it’s definitely crowded but it helps that they were friends before they were jailed.
(Chris) “It’s always good that you knew somebody from the streets. We knew each other from out there, too. So, for us to be here and living together, it’s like no big deal.”
(Sean) “It is overcrowded. There’s always new faces everyday.”
(Dillon) To ease the overcrowding, the state wants to build a new, minimum-security work camp for non-violent offenders. The work camps are less expensive than jails and give prisoners a chance to learn valuable work skills. They also can earn a day off their sentence for every two days they complete successfully in the program.
Inmate Eric Marcy hangs sheet-rock for a work camp construction crew. He’s doing time for his seventh DWI. He says the camp has allowed him to do more than just wait out his sentence.
(Marcy) “I was sentenced 18 months to five years. I could have done 18 months in Kentucky and had 18 months of incarceration and then right out to the street, or come here and done a year and be sort of eased in.”
(Dillon) Inmates also talked about the unexpected surprises of being out in the workforce. Harold King painted the town hall in Peacham as part of a prison work crew.
(King) “And the postmaster there, she just kept bringing us pastries every day. I’m serious, and even before we got done finished she said she was going to hate it when we left because she wasn’t going to have company all that time. Yeah, the people out in society, they see us out there doing something. They’re very, very appreciative of it.”
(Dillon) Back on the bus, it’s clear the senators want to focus more on programs like the work camp. Senator Susan Bartlett, a Democrat from Lamoille County, chairs the Appropriations Committee.
(Bartlett) “It’s always a frustration about money, but I think the part of it you have to look and see is that the money we spend on a lot of these people – keeping them locked up – is money that’s thrown away. Spending the same amount of money in treatment and support systems when they get out is an investment where they have a much higher probability of becoming constructive, positive, members of society.”
(Dillon) As the senators ride back to Montpelier, they’re touched by the stories of the work camp inmates and the women in drug treatment. They discuss the obstacles to finding work or housing, and staying away from alcohol or drugs.
The senators realize that the solutions ultimately are within the individuals themselves. But they say there’s also more that the state can do to give non-violent offenders a chance to stay outside the prison gates.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.