(Host) Because of over crowded prisons and high incarceration costs, most Vermont inmates only serve their minimum sentence behind bars.
They do the rest of their time in the community. Corrections officials say this conditional reentry program works well.
But as VPR’s Nina Keck reports, the challenges some offenders face can become even larger out of jail.
(Keck) Rutland resident Matt Sullivan is a recovering heroin addict.
(Sullivan) “I tried getting clean before I went to jail – you know. I was in rehab 6 or 7 times. And then I went to jail and that’s when I really looked for the help, because that’s when you know there’s a huge problem – when you start going to jail over something – yeah.”
(Keck) Like most people, Sullivan doesn’t want to go back to prison. But within three years, over half of all offenders in the state do go back. Dean Bushee Sr. is one of them. In and out of jail for selling cocaine, he’s been in the conditional re-entry program three times and says his drug addiction is a big reason why.
(Bushee) “By not wanting to stop – simple truth -know what I mean? There ain’t no sugar coating that one. That, the money . . .minimum wage – I just can’t live off minimum wage. I have three children and I see them every weekend which is good.”
(Keck) Substance abuse is one of the biggest obstacles facing offenders. Because of that, the state corrections department is experimenting with a number of new electronic devices to better monitor drug and alcohol use. Most offenders must also participate in programs like alcoholics or narcotics anonymous. In addition to addiction problems, mental health issues are also common in the prison population. But social workers say these disorders often fall through the cracks. David Belden is a community outreach worker with Psychiatric Survivors, a mental health advocacy agency in Rutland.
(Belden) “Somebody with schizophrenia goes to jail for whatever length of time. They’re stabilized on the inside with antipsychotic medications and then they’re released.”
(Keck) Belden says it can often take months for offenders to get all their paperwork in order, to get a job, receive social security benefits or qualify for welfare. That delay, he says, can be devastating.
(Belden) “All of these funds that would allow them to get their medication continued stand the possibility of not happening for the first one to three months. So they come out in the community and they destabilize and self medication beats no medication with a lot of them.”
(Keck) Belden says too often such people simply end up back in jail.
(Belden) “We don’t’ keep track of who’s in and who’s coming out. So if we don’t know someone is in there with a mental illness, there’s nothing we can do to help them. Right there, that is Corrections’ responsibility to. If nothing else, make the caseworker aware that there are services out there to help these people.”
(Keck) Lucy Stevens is Community Corrections Supervisor for Rutland’s Probation and Parole Office. She says her staff works hard to ensure offenders do get the help they need. But she says in many parts of the state there aren’t enough psychiatrists and therapists to meet demand and in some cases, the necessary treatment simply doesn’t exist. Plus she says it’s unrealistic to expect offenders to make drastic behavioral changes in a matter of months.
(Stevens) “But I think if we look realistically at the overall experience. This is working and people are doing better and they are more prepared to lead a more productive life once they are done with their sentence.”
(Keck) Corrections Commissioner Rob Hofmann says Vermont’s small prison population makes it possible to be innovative when it comes to solving problems like substance abuse or mental illness. But he says many other problems are out of the department’s control. Solving them, he says, will take a community-wide approach.
(Hofmann) “Because these are people that dropped out of our local schools, picked up addictions on our local street corners and came from broken families in our local communities. And to the degree that we get the community involved in getting them back on their feet – we’ll get a better output.”
(Keck) Hofmann’s optimistic. He says 1,400 volunteers work with his department to help offenders. That’s on top of the churches, charities and nonprofit organizations in the state which also lend a hand.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck.