Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” This quote by one of the prison abolition movement’s leaders, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, encapsulates why I choose abolition. I choose life, not death; I choose accountability not punishment; and I choose love not revenge. I come here today to make the case for abolition and insist that it is the time to transition our state away from incarceration.

As the leader of the FreeHer VT campaign, which is spearheaded by the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, I am reminded daily of the importance – and urgency – of transforming the way in which we handle harm that occurs in our communities. As a new legislative session approaches, it is of the utmost importance that we decide as a community how we want our future to look and organize fervently to ensure its creation. With our state continuing to recover from catastrophe, we are presented with a moment to reimagine our communities and how we invest in them. We only have 49 people sentenced in our women’s prison, Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, and those who are not sentenced should be free to fight their cases in the community. Also, when you account for those that need programming for substance use or mental health, this number shrinks even more. Even though we have a small population of incarcerated women, the state is proposing to build two new women’s prisons that will cost over $70 million and have the capacity to incarcerate around 150 people – in addition to two men’s prisons being constructed later down the line. Advocates predict that when all this carceral infrastructure is completed it will cost Vermont over half a billion dollars – on top of the $184 million the Department of Corrections is allocated annually. Why spend an exorbitant amount of community dollars on new prison design when we could fund and expand already existing alternatives to incarceration? Currently, the longest inpatient treatment option for those with substance use disorders is a two week stay at Brattleboro Retreat. Soteria House and Alyssum (which are therapeutic community residences and residential crisis respite) constantly have wait lists, and many sit in prison today because we don’t have adequate alternatives available. There is a clear need for more adequate supports that help facilitate true accountability and recovery. How can we expect people with complex mental health and substance use disorders to receive proper care without programming available? While canvassing for FreeHer, I have spoken to community members firsthand that have shared with me their fears of harming themselves or others because they were not able to find a detox bed. They felt forced to continue to use because the pain from withdrawals was so excruciating. This is just one example of the numerous painful conversations FreeHer advocates have while canvassing in directly impacted areas.

FreeHer and Representative Brian Cina are advocating for a “Just Transition” that will eventually lead to the end of the use of state prisons. We can focus on building up the supports that actually keep people out of prison while simultaneously decarcerating our state prisons. We can significantly decrease the amount of people incarcerated by releasing aging and sick people,ending cash bail, and letting folks out who are past their minimum release date. Pulling data from the ACLU’s Blueprint for Smart Justice in Vermont, they found that in 2018, 63% of those sentenced in our prisons were held beyond their minimums. This number includes 127 people who were being held because they had nowhere to live. According to statistics from 2019, 345 people who are incarcerated have not even been sentenced and over 15 people in the women’s prison are over 50 years old. It is the hope that this data helps people start to realize that prisons are nothing more than tools of dominance and racial oppression. In no way do they facilitate or aid in healing and recovery. Mass incarceration exploded in the 1970s, very much as a direct response to the Black Liberation Movement. We can see the racist roots of this institution continue today, with the disparities in incarceration rates for Indigenous, Black and Brown people across the country. Vermont also reflects this reality, with Black Vermonters making up 8% of our prison admissions in 2017 even though they accounted for only 1% of our state population. Prisons do not serve and heal – they punish and traumatize.

The National Council’s FreeHer Campaign specifically raises awareness around women’s incarceration because women are frequently left out of legislation and conversations targeted at addressing the harms of incarceration. The National Council is the only national organization that advocates and organizes explicitly around ending women’s incarceration, and that is led by formerly incarcerated women. We can see evidence of women being left behind in our own state. The legislature passed numerous legislation aimed at decreasing Vermont’s prison population, yet we only saw the number of men in our state prisons affected with a 32% drop by 2017 while the number of women incarcerated remained relatively unchanged. Women also face unique challenges while incarcerated. Those incarcerated in our women’s prisons are twice as likely as men to have their parental rights terminated, a 2013 survey found. Community providers also estimate that 95% of the women incarcerated in our state are survivors of violence and sexual abuse. Our staff and members at the National Council have lived in some of the oldest and most decrepit state and federal prisons in this country, and newer remodeled prisons. The concept of a trauma-informed prison has been rejected by formerly incarcerated women and experts alike. There is no evidence that prison-based treatment is effective for women. There is no such thing as a safe prison for women at all.

I challenge Vermonters to explore other methods of accountability. Only 11% of serious harm results in arrest, while only 2% are convicted. The state relies on our fear forprisons to continue to be regarded as legitimate although as these statistics display, we are not
even addressing the most harmful types of behavior with this system. In Mariame Kaba’s “What About the Rapists”, we see less than 2.4% of rape cases result in incarceration. We live in fear that we will not be safe without these systems when they don’t even keep us safe currently, and enable violence and sexual assault on a massive scale behind bars. Remember, institutions like prisons are tools of state domination and will never be sources of our liberation. As long as they exist, so do state-sanctioned violence and abuse. It is time to reject the failed experiment of prisons. Safe and strong communities would make prisons obsolete!
— Jayna Ahsaf, FreeHer VT

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