The Vermont legislature appears to be going forward with the idea of building a new prison. The premise seems to be that, if you design a prison to be more humane, and build in more possibilities for training and education, then you are engaging in reform. But will these new prisons be surrounded by several fences and layers of razor wire? Will there still be a vehicle patrolling the perimeter? Will people still be strip-searched after visiting with their loved ones or on returning from a medical trip? Will the use of solitary confinement continue? Will people still be transported in the “chicken truck” sitting on benches in an unheated or uncooled panel truck, with no windows, shackled and unable to even buckle a seat belt? There’s no evidence that ending these practices are part of the discussion. But they are part of the daily trauma of being incarcerated.

We incarcerate too many people for too long. In fact, the entire concept of prison is obsolete and anachronistic. Rather than trying to make prisons more humane, we need to focus on the conditions that contribute to harm, starting in our communities, and find alternatives to incarceration.

Building new facilities that look and feel more “humane” are not going to change the culture. Vermont tried this before, in the 1970s. Chittenen Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF),  which is deemed obsolete and in need of replacement, was built with this in mind. In a document from this era*, we read “The traditional closed institution has a consistent record of failure over the last 200 years. With increasing caseloads and steadily rising costs, Vermont cannot afford programs that are proven failures and will only become more wasteful of money and human potential. There is clearly a need to deal with offenders as close to the community as is advisable in each case, but we need new institutional approaches for those who must be isolated.”

Instead of being the community-based and and reentry-focused facility imagined in 1972, CRCF has become just another prison.

The concepts of punishment and control are deeply embedded in to the Department of Corrections. That will not change with new buildings. Also, the legislature needs to take responsibility for the legislation that continues to add new crimes or increases penalties for existing ones. The legislature pats itself on the back at every opportunity for reducing the prison population by 30%, but they seem content to leave it at that. Those were the low-hanging fruit. True reform includes all incarcerated people.

Vermont makes a nod toward restorative justice, but it isn’t enough. There are community justice centers throughout the state, including a good one in Brattleboro, but again, they are addressing crimes that should never have involved incarceration in the first place. I’ve served on both reparative panels and COSAs (Circles of Support and Accountability, focused on people reentering the community from prison) and as much as I admire the work, there’s so much more they could and should be doing. The cynical point of view for Vermont’s commitment to restorative justice is that it’s window-dressing.

But to truly change the dynamic is to shift funding away from punishment and incarceration and toward education, mental health, and… well, communities. There are better alternatives to building new prisons.

— Meg McCarthy

* A Comprehensive Proposal for Corrections in Vermont, Kent Stoneman, Commissioner of Corrections, January 11, 1972

A Prototype for a Community Corrections Center in Vermont, Kent Stoneman, Project Manager, 1971

Call to Action

Let your state senators and representatives know that you do not support building new prisons. Tell them you support strengthening education, housing, mental health and addiction supports in our community to mitigate the need for incarceration.

Find your legislator here.

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Vermont Just Justice is an all-volunteer organization. Help us continue to support Vermont’s incarcerated people and change our state’s criminal legal system.