Vermont Prisons

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(HOST) Legislative committees have been spending a lot of time examining Corrections issues. Commentator Allen Gilbert takes a look.

(GILBERT) Lots of people at the Statehouse in Montpelier want to talk with Corrections officials this year. It’s rare for the Legislature to adopt a thematic approach to its work. But on any given day this session at the Statehouse, three or four committees are asking a wide range of questions about the state’s jails.

And following last week’s announcement of staff changes in the Douglas administration, there will no doubt be more questions. Robert Hofmann is replacing Steve Gold as Corrections commissioner. Hofmann has no background in Corrections work. The shuffle is likely to set back timelines for changes in any number of areas within the department.

Last year, an independent investigation found serious deficiencies at the state’s jails. The investigation was launched after a series of inmate deaths and suicides. This fall, a special committee looking into prison overcrowding issued a comprehensive report that said the state should stop putting so many people behind bars. The reports capture the two core challenges facing the Department of Corrections. The first is the treatment that offenders are subjected to. The second is the huge increase in the number of people sent to jail. The two challenges are related, but there are also separate sets of issues connected to each.

I follow prison issues for my organization, the American Civil Liberties Union. This isn’t a partisan concern. Church groups and humanitarian agencies, as well as inmates’ families and civil liberties organizations, believe that the treatment given the least among us says a lot about the rest of society.

As a state, we now spend more on prisons than we do on higher education. One in five men between the ages of 21 and 23 is under the supervision of the Department of Corrections. Overcrowding has resulted in sending nearly 500 prisoners to jails in Kentucky and Arizona. Overcrowding has also led to the constant shuffling of prisoners within the state’s jails. Some are moved half a dozen times within a period of a few months. That makes providing jail programs difficult.

Many offenders enter prison with medical problems. About one-third are estimated to suffer from some sort of disability or mental illness. The care provided offenders is contracted out to private companies. There have been charges that the services have not always been adequate. Many inmates don’t have a high school degree. A substantial number can’t read.

You’d think that locking up so many people would, in the long run, mean fewer people charged with crimes. Some law enforcement officials have told lawmakers, in fact, that they like to lock some people up as a reality lesson. Yet the opposite is true, according to Corrections officials. They say that the best way to make sure that someone doesn’t end up in jail is not to send them there in the first place.

It won’t be easy to solve Corrections problems quickly. But at least the Legislature is shining a bright light on the Corrections system in an effort to come up with some solutions. That’s laudable.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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