Good People, Bad Mistakes
Address given by Ange Greene, VCJR outreach coordinator, at the Re-imagining Justice conference on Dec. 1 at Vermont Law School.
Good morning. My name is Ange Greene and 34 months ago I was sentenced to 25 months at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility for assault and robbery. I was scared into a plea deal and away I went. Jail was a culture shock to say the very least. I found myself three days into my bid on the floor of the hole hallucinating and vomiting. The only things I was given up until that point were a flat mattress, 2 green blankets, an orange jump suit, and flip flops. All of a sudden my cell door opened and I was told my case worker needed to see me. I hadn’t even had a detox assessment yet. They shackled my ankles and cuffed my hands and paraded me down the hall like I was a caged animal.
I sat down with my case worker and was asked a series of questions about my family, drug use, criminal history, relationships, etc. I remember very few answers I gave and I kept asking why I was in red. I didn’t even know where I was. Little did I know that the answers I gave that day would determine my future programming. I wasn’t even informed of that until I was well into my bid. I was told that I had to complete 200 hrs. of Risk Reduction Programming and they figured out the amount of time I was to spend in the program by the answers I have given three days into my bid. I find it difficult to believe they could’ve got an accurate idea of who I was or the programming I needed based upon my incoherent ramblings that day.
When I questioned my caseworker about this I was told that I needed to complete the programming or sit until my max of 2020. I never once questioned the fact that I needed the programming, I simply wanted to change the course selections to add some of the programming geared towards substance abuse. All of the programming was selected for me by people who didn’t even know me and was geared towards violent behavior. Granted my charges were violent but I never hit anyone on the night of my crime. What happened to me could’ve happened to anyone who ever set out to buy drugs. I was simply caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was never taken into consideration that up until that point I was never accused or convicted of any violent crime. My problems stemmed from substance abuse issues that I had struggled with my whole life.
There was only one substance abuse program in the whole jail and there was a waiting list to get into the program. Once I finally got into the Phoenix House it consisted of a few groups per week and a monthly 20 minute meeting with a substance abuse counselor. This was hardly sufficient for a heroin addict of 10 years. In jail there is no shortage of drugs. If you know the right people you can get literally whatever you want.
The way the jail reacts to drug use is by segregating you from the rest of the population. They place you in the Special Management Unit or Foxtrot where you spend 17 hrs. a day in your cell and they revoke all of the privileges that you have. Privileges being AA/NA meetings, church, school, outdoor recreation, contact visiting, and the ability to order commissary. People who end up down there have little to no hope of ever getting better or getting out. If you pick up any major DR down there, drug related or not, the 30 days you get sentenced to starts over. If you go down there on a lapse you're almost certain to relapse in the duration of your stay. Containing all of the drugs and the addicts in one unit isn’t working. They would rather place you in that bit and forget about you than to actually help you. The depression and loneliness that envelopes that unit is almost deafening. I was trapped down there for almost 4 months until I finally reached population.
I thought that when I reached population my time would get easier but I was sadly mistaken. I was now lost and anyone I knew was back in Foxtrot. I was in a new unit with a different caseworker. Population was crime school. In my next two months I learned how to sell drugs, shop lift, commit identity theft, steal cars, smuggle drugs into the facility, and even had conversations on how to get away with murder. The only thing I had gained from jail up until that point was knowledge of how to be a better criminal. I was 6 months into my bid and I was beginning to really think I was a lost cause. I felt like I had lost all sense of who I really was and had become trapped into my identity of 127646.
I was about 3 months into my Risk Reduction Programming when I met Julie. Julie was my Risk Reduction Programming (RRP) coordinator and she helped to challenge my way of thinking. Because of her belief in me I was able to realize that I was significant and a worthy cause. I was not just someone who had broken the law and simply another criminal. She helped me to see and accept that I am an intelligent individual, who is capable of doing anything with my future. From that moment on I decided that I was not going to allow myself to become another run-of-the mill statistic. I enrolled in school, kept to myself, and dove into my Risk Reduction (RR) work.
I completed the Corrections phase of RR and left pre-minimum to a program in Brattleboro, called Tapestry. I hit the street and after having no treatment for my substance abuse issues I soon began receiving pain medication through my primary care physician. I realized that I was in over my head and desperately needed help. I asked my case worker if I could please get on Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT). I was immediately denied and told that I could not get on Suboxone until I was a month away from leaving the program. I was also told that Tapestry was not a drug treatment center, but instead was specifically for behavioral management treatment. Again, I felt helpless and silenced. It felt as though I were screaming at the top of my lungs and was being ignored. I knew at that moment I had to begin fighting for myself.
With a doctor’s note I had forced the program's hand to let me get on MAT. At that point I felt unwelcome there. I began getting into trouble -- serious trouble for minor infractions. I was put on a behavioral contract and had all of my privileges revoked. Before I knew it I was cuffed and on my way back to jail. I was put in the hole and immediately housed in Foxtrot. They stripped me of all of my meds and I was right back where I had started. I knew I was going to lose some of my medication but I never anticipated them stripping me off of all of my psych meds as well. They told me I was losing my psych meds for a short period of time, until I had an appointment with the mental health clinician. That appointment came 2 months later. I became depressed and seriously withdrawn. I would have anxiety attacks on a daily basis. When the appointment finally did come I was told that my depression and anxiety were in my head.
I told the doctor numerous times that I suffered from anxiety, depression, bipolar episodes, and severe PTSD. I again was told that I had to expect to feel this way because of the environment I was in. I spent 2 months in Foxtrot this time. I had gotten a dirty UA for bup [buprenorphine] and my time had started over. I made my way into population and again dove into my schoolwork. I wanted my story to have a different ending than all of the others I have heard along the way. I decided if I couldn’t get the help I was screaming for I would do my very best to use the next 4 months to help as many of my fellow inmates as I could. I started hanging out in the law library and was helping out 2 of my friends with their cases.
Less than 7% of inmates can afford private counsel. Public defenders are overworked, understaffed, and underpaid. People do not realize that the lack of effective counsel is an epidemic. Most of the time you never even speak to your lawyer until 10 minutes before you go in front of the judge. I saw how problematic this was and would prepare people that were going to court on what to expect. I wanted to make sure they weren’t scared into a plea bargain the way that I was. I put pen to paper, writing lawyers, judges, rehabs, and anyone who would listen to advocate for my fellow inmates so why not me?
In my efforts I got 2 people out of jail and sent to rehab facilities. I also helped 3 others obtain housing. One case that I can remember in particular was that there was this woman who was 36 months over her minimum for lack of approved housing. There are so many good people in jail for bad mistakes they’ve made. These people aren’t just convicts and/or junkies. They aren’t simply a lost cause. These people are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters, and sons. I left jail and started on a path to a whole new life. I went to Northern Lights (NL), started at the clinic, graduated RRP, and enrolled in college courses for criminal justice. Even though I had changed who I was I couldn’t get a job to save my life. Finally I was given an opportunity doing outreach work at VCJR. I finally got a job that helps me by helping others. I am now the voice of the silenced who right now are stuck behind bars. They are losing their children, losing employment, losing their residences and for what?
Incarcerating people is not helping their issues. We need to invest our tax dollars into people. Not into punishment. What we are doing is not working. The jails are a revolving door. I was never offered drug court or rehab. I was never asked where I was in life or met in the middle. We need to stop standardizing what should be individualized. It is time that we start asking people what their needs are and begin building a treatment plan around those. We need to offer better programming, medical care, and access to higher education for those people in the system. We need to make people aware, upon reentry, of all of the different resources our communities offer. Maybe if caseworkers actually made a solid after-care plan with people instead of releasing them with a garbage bag full of uncertainty the jail would not be a revolving door.
We cannot continue to sweep these issues under the carpet. We as a society have to stop shunning people for their mistakes and get to the core of their issues. This is not simply an issue for me, this is an issue for we. And we can do better. The time is now. Thank you