Lawmakers in the House Corrections and Institutions Committee on Thursday discussed two bills that would create a moratorium on new prisons for five years and launch a committee to examine the elimination of incarceration altogether.
Much of the testimony concerned the conditions at women’s incarceration facilities. They heard from former inmates who came to the committee table.
state of Vermont
Rep. Brian Cina, P/D Burlington, is the lead sponsor of both bills — one dealing with the delay on new infrastructure, H.445, and the other forming the committee to end incarceration, H.438.
“We want the creation of a committee-based system of care and rehabilitation that reduces recidivism and promotes recovery, and we would do this by having accessible and equitable localized services throughout the state in every community, every town, everywhere,” Cina told committee members.
Prisons for women not working?
Jayna Ahsaf, the Vermont campaign organizer for the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, is also in support of these efforts. First, she suggested that prison sentences aren’t generally benefiting women.
“There’s no evidence that prison-based treatment is effective for women, and there’s no such thing as a safe prison for women at all,” she said.
Ahsaf spoke in support of a moratorium on new prison construction, and she suggested there are currently opportunities for new housing.
“By taking prison construction off the table for five years we’ll finally have the opportunity to create alternative solutions that solve problems preemptively,” she said.
She added that Vermont has already gone the last 16 years without building any new prisons, and so another five years should not be difficult.
Ahsaf also noted that empty dorms are an example of resources that could be transformed into supportive housing for those attempting to reintegrate back into society.
NOT FOR ANYONE?: At least more than a dozen lawmakers have signed on to a bill that would consider having Vermont eliminate incarceration as a penalty for crime.
She described “wrap-around” services, which would mean making help and resources available to those trying to reintegrate into normal life, “including assistance finding employment, counseling, and care for those struggling with substance abuse disorder.”
Tiffany Harrington, a concerned citizen who was invited to testify to the committee, spoke about her experiences as a mother while incarcerated.
“Instead of spending all that money on a prison you could actually get these women a house and a car and still have money left over,” she said.
“The point is you could do something to really help these people instead of like taking away their families and their homes and then having them start over completely every time they get out into the community,” she added.
Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility under criticism
The committee heard repeatedly about alleged poor conditions at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, a women’s prison in South Burlington.
Ahsaf noted that less than half have been convicted of the charges against them, the rest are there still awaiting trial. She said too many inmates are in for minor infractions.
“When you consider that some of these women are also incarcerated on technical parole violations, something as trivial as missing an appointment and others can’t make bail, when taking those women into account as well as those that are suffering from mental illness and should be in treatment, it is hard to see who is left,” Ahsaf said.
Ahsaf said there are at least 20 cases at the facility of women who “can be housed in a facility that does not have to look like or cost as much as a prison.”
Michael Bielawski is a reporter for True North. Send him news tips at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @TrueNorthMikeB.