VTDigger has begun a series of meetings over the next year to discuss significant issues affecting Vermont. The first of the Fast Forward forums, held recently on the UVM campus, was motivated by the outlet’s investigations into corrections facilities and a Seven Days article that exposed allegations of staff misconduct at Vermont’s only women’s prison.
VTDigger has reported on a number of systemic problems in the state’s corrections system, and has sued to obtain records. Founder and editor Anne Galloway said the recent revelations brought calls for change. “The reporting has spurred an internal investigation at the Department of Corrections. Advocates are calling for the closure of Chittenden Regional, reforms to pretrial detention and better transitional housing. About 140 of 1,700 people in Vermont have already served the minimum portion of their prison term, but for lack of appropriate housing, they remain incarcerated. Another 400 are people who have been detained prior to trial. Vermont's problems aren't unique. Prisons nationwide are places where physical and sexual abuse is rampant and rehabilitation support is sometimes an afterthought.”
The “How to Fix a Jail” forum featured keynote speaker Janos Marton, a leader of the Close Rikers campaign and current candidate for Manhattan District Attorney. Marton described efforts in New York City to close Rikers and what he learned as a criminal justice organizer, adding that Vermont has a number of things to be proud of regarding criminal justice reform efforts. “You have a lot of champions for criminal justice reform in your governments and you have a lot of great advocates. You're starting from a good place. But to give perspective, even though Vermont is the first or second lowest incarceration rate in the United States, if it were taken alone as a country, it would be in the bottom 10% of the world. It would be actually sandwiched, I looked this up, it'd be sandwiched right between Russia and Brazil. So think about that when you think about how much farther Vermont can push to create a system that actually puts people first, strengthens communities and reduces our dependence on jails and prisons.”
Former Vermont State Police Director Jim Baker was named Interim Commissioner of Corrections effective January 6th after the commissioner resigned following publication of the Seven Days article. His first impressions: the culture and work conditions in the department must change. “We're getting stabilized. But in the facilities staff are working mandatory overtime. We're carrying large vacancies. I'm hearing stories of staff working 16 and 18 hours, sleeping in their vehicles for four and five hours and going back to work in 18 hour shifts. That is not sustainable. It's dangerous for the staff. It's dangerous for the folks that we’re responsible for in the facilities and that's a major challenge right now.”
Chittenden County State’s attorney Sarah George is a criminal justice reform advocate. “We need to be arresting less people. We need to be charging less people. We need to be diverting more people. We need to be detaining less people before they're found guilty. We need to be engaging them in more services while their case is pending. And once we're putting them in jail, if that really is the route we have to take, putting them in jail for far less time. We need to be working from the very get-go to have less people in the system.”
Audio is courtesy of VTDigger’s webstream of the Fast Forward forum How to Fix a Jail.