A million different crimes could send you to prison. Depending on who you ask, the length of that time will either be too short or too long. Teaching the offender a lesson in order to correct their behavior — it’s right there in the name, Vermont Department of Corrections. Punishment and correction, these dual missions drive the juggernaut of law enforcement and our state court system. The actual success of these systems — it depends on who’s asking and who answers. Is the crime rate up or down? Do you feel safe? Are the sentences too lenient? Is enough being done for the victims of crime?
I would argue that treating people in prison as irredeemable, with no value now or ever, is a mistake. I further argue that that incarceration alone, without added intensification by prison policies or staff, is punishment enough. We know we are guilty, and every second inside these walls reinforces that. Imagine locking yourself in your bathroom with a total stranger, and sleeping within five feet of the toilet. Covid restrictions might keep you there for 23 and 3/4 hours a day. This over-pressurized living takes its toll on incarcerated people, staff, family, and friends. It’s no secret: jail life breaks people down. Incarcerated people’s reaction to stress may range from total withdrawal to targeted violence.
Mental health workers at all Vermont facilities are overwhelmed by short-staffing and difficulty in retaining qualified people. Their work never ends. Do mental health workers expect to “cure” people? What are their lowest expectations and highest hopes? What is their morale like? Do they feel empowered, supported, appreciated? Treading water? Are they, by default, sympathetic to the plight of incarcerated people? If so, does the empathy run up against the unspoken creed of punishment: first, last, and always? Does the very presence of mental health programs suggest that incarceration is not as benign and “easy on criminals” as some people would like to believe?
I’ve been in prison for 11 years, and I know many jail staffers. Most are not sadists, looking to make this life more miserable than it already is. They face scrutiny and judgement from members of the public whose solution to crime is often more, bigger prisons, longer sentences, and a revival of the death penalty. I am not about to debate the whole shebang. I am here to tell you about an in-prison effort to alleviate some of the pain and uncertainty of life inside. It’s a common-sense response to the needs of incarcerated people struggling to cope.
This DOC-supported program is called Open Ears (OE). It was created in Vermont by Annie Ramniceanu, with the invaluable ongoing support of Colleen Nilson. They are both accomplished, respected experts in human behavior and addiction. Their tireless work has been crucial and essential to the success of the OE program, among others. Open Ears is peer-to-peer counseling, empathically listening to incarcerated people with the hope of finding new ways to deal with ongoing challenges.
Conversations between incarcerated people and mental health workers are not confidential. OE conversations are, with these exceptions: declarations of intent to self-harm, or of harm to others; or planning / aiding any escape attempts. Supervisors are immediately notified, and take over the situation. Coaches, as these peer mentors are called, from all Vermont prisons receive initial training from Annie and Colleen, during a week of day-long sessions. Coaches are recommended by facility staff, and selected after a thorough screening process.
We coaches are not lawyers, social workers, psychiatrists, or doctors. We are friends helping friends, using decades of life experience to serve as signposts. We help to encourage self-discovery process by common sense means. An “advising” conversation is a true dialog, not a demand for specific actions. By helping to shift points of view, we may be able to find ways out of “ruts with no escape.”
Coaches aren’t perfect. We’re not saviors. We deal with the person in front of us, presenting us their life as they see it. We also listen for the unspoken words recognized from our own lives. A helpful response need not be analytical- or clinical-sounding. Ours is not a “dumbed down” conversation. People continually surprise us with how much they do know about their minds and behaviors.
Coaches are essentially on call, and evening sessions are not uncommon. Weekly meetings of one hour are usual, and the frequency can be increased as needed. Covid has caused wholesale interruptions. We continue trying to meet with everyone who asks to speak to a coach. Coaches leave the facility for home and for other prisons, but the spectrum of coaches keeps changing. Over the years, Southern State Correctional Facility (SSCF) in Springfield has had eleven coaches. Statewide there are about 20 coaches.
Open Ears is recognized as a force for positive change, a successful source for good. Vermont’s program is close to unique, and we try to set the best example for the friends we serve, and everyone else. I feel privileged to be trusted with helping incarcerated people at SSCF. To me, any time someone leaves a session with a little bit more hope than they came in with, is a success. It’s this stream of real successes that helps build a life that is worth living, and reminds us that we are all worth saving .
Every person is much more than the facts of their crime. Supporting them in their efforts to recognize their failings and grow beyond them is humankind’s challenge, gift, and responsibility. New generations of OE coaches will continue to carry the fire of healing discovery to as many incarcerated people as need our help.
We are all coaches, all the time.
If we invest in someone’s potential rather than in their punishment, won’t their desire to make a better world be more likely to succeed?
— Richard Gagnon
The writer is an Open Ears coach currently incarcerated at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vermont