On the morning of January 1, 2023, Henry Butson passed away in Springfield, Vermont, making him the state’s first incarcerated person to die this year. Henry was 74 years old. He had been incarcerated for 20 years. He would have been eligible for parole in 2028.
I met Henry several times while visiting my husband at Southern State Correctional Facility. Henry would occasionally get visits from his daughter, and sometimes grandchildren were present. He had a hello and a small joke for us as he passed us on his way to his seat. He always seemed in a cheerful mood, although that could have been, in part, the anticipation of visiting with his family.
Henry spent a part of his incarceration in a private prison in Beattyville, Kentucky. This facility ran a dog program; the local animal shelter trained residents to train dogs, and these men worked with the dogs for several weeks, making them suitable for adoption. Henry worked with one beagle named Lily for a time. Lily was a very timid, fearful dog. But with Henry’s patient care, she was happy and playful by the time she had to leave. In Springfield, Henry worked for a time cleaning offices in the admin wing and in the infirmary, but reportedly he was taken off that duty after falling in the infirmary office. Clearly Henry was willing and able to work for many years, and if he were back in the community, he could have been a contributing member.
Henry could have benefitted from a bill introduced in 2019: S.167, “An act relating to compassionate release and parole eligibility.” Under this bill, older offenders who have served a set amount of their sentence could become eligible for parole. If it was decided that the individual could be released without concern for the safety of the community, they may be paroled (which would keep them under the supervision of the state). Although the bill passed the state senate, it failed in the house of representatives.
The concept of releasing low-risk, aging prisoners is one that is supported by many advocates of reform. It makes sense on humanitarian grounds, and also practically: older, potentially infirm people will be more costly for the state to care for. In the long run, though, Vermont’s addiction to punishment again trumped its commitment to recovery and redemption. It is sad that someone like Hentry Butson was unable to benefit from such a policy.
– Meg McCarthy
Read about New York State’s RAPP initiative
Vera Institute’s publication on Aging Out