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Statement at Press Conference on Marijuana Regulation

Cedar Creek Room, Statehouse
Montpelier, VT
Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016

Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform supports the legalization of marijuana, because criminalizing it has not worked. In fact, it was a bad idea from the beginning. That is, if the goal was to discourage people from using, it was a complete failure, as there is as much use of marijuana now as ever.

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Why Criminal Justice Reform Must Be a Priority in 2016

This piece first appeared as a commentary on VtDigger, January 6, 2016

With the Legislature starting this week, pressure starts to build: Which of the many compelling issues will the committees take on and which will languish until another year? What does the public most want? What can do the most good?

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The prison experience

When an inmate in Michigan got into a fight, he was given a 14-day “disciplinary segregation” (i.e. punishment), which he accepted willingly.  But instead of being returned to "general population" afterward, he was told (he reports) that a new policy meant he'd have to endure another 60 days of “ad seg” (administrative segregation). The difference in names means nothing to an inmate. Regardless of the bureaucratic distinction, the experience is the same—isolation from others 23 hours a day. Solitary confinement.

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Racial bias in sentencing--an example

Recently VCJR submitted an amicus or “friend of the court” brief written by Robert Appel—a member of our board and former director of Vermont’s Human Rights Commission—on behalf of Shamel Alexander.  Shamel Alexander is a 26-year-old man sentenced to ten years for possession of less than 14 grams of heroin. 

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How to create hardened criminals and increase crime

What is the goal of the “criminal justice system”?  What do we want to accomplish? We at Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform believe that many fewer people should be in prison, and for a much shorter time, and we are working to that end.  But meanwhile, because Vermont still sends to prison more people than we have room to hold—the prison population having quadrupled since 1980—we still have 300 men living in a private, for-profit prison in Baldwin, MI: North Lake Correctional Facility.

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Toward Freedom podcast

Dylan Kelly of Toward Freedom interviews VCJR Director Suzi Wizowaty and Jeremy Mackenzie on incarceration in Vermont.

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Performance Piece in the Works

performance web

L to R, Kelly Jane Thomas, Kim Jordan and Jena Necrason (with Suzi Wizowaty, 2nd from R), the artists who created “Intersections,” a performance piece about the criminal justice system. The work-in-progress was workshopped at Main St. Landing in Burlington on April 25. It will premiere in Flynn Space in November. Watch for more public workshops in the interim! “Complex, difficult issues; powerful material pulled from inmates’ letters and the artists’ own experiences; and talented creator-performers—a winning combination. It’s a strong, moving piece,” said Wizowaty. Watch for more info this summer.

Locked Out or Locked Up

The fact that the U.S. imprisons more people (per capita and in sheer numbers) than any other country is an embarrassment and a scandal.  It happened over time as a result of state and national policies and will take time to reverse.  But the fact that the U.S. has virtually closed its borders to Syrian refugees is more than embarrassing, it’s a moral outrage.  Yes, President Obama has proposed to allow 10,000 Syrians to enter the U.S. But as the Berliner Morganspost reports, that “is how many Syrians arrived in Munich last weekend alone.”

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Decrepit old people?

The prison in Springfield is known in part for its wing of "decrepit old people." At the recent Justice Oversight Committee meeting, legislators toured the prison and were apparently distressed by the sight of men in wheelchairs, or using walkers.  A senator asked, "Isn't there some other secure facility where they could be housed?"

Secure facility? 

This is the wrong question.  

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VCJR Director Suzi Wizowaty: Legislative Report

WCAX TV Covers the move to Michigan

Eva McKend of WCAX covered the move or nearly 300 Vermont inmates from prisons in Kentucky and Arizona to a facility owned and operated by GEO Group. See the story here.

Yet another death?

The news is out about the move of the men being held in Kentucky and Arizona: they’re going to Baldwin, Michigan, to a very large prison owned by GEO Group.   It’s a newer facility, and while this stark, antiseptic metal and concrete structure (as revealed in photos) strikes me as a horrible living condition for laboratory rats, let alone human beings, the place is supposed to have advantages overall, like video conferencing, which Vt. DOC will pay for.  That may be true.

I’ve been asked several times this week, “What’s the problem with sending men out of state?”  Most obviously, it’s hard on families who want to maintain contact with a loved one who has been sent there.   And maintaining that contact helps people when they’re released.

But here’s the bigger problem:  apparently within the last week, a man at Lee Adjustment Center in Kentucky died—and yet we can’t find out the details.  The problem with out-of-state prisons, aside from the grotesque immorality of making a profit off incarcerating human beings, is the lack of public oversight, and the difficulty in getting information about what’s really going on.   This is an example.  What actually happened?  Here’s what we’ve heard, originating from inmates or family members:  A man committed suicide.  A man was beaten by another man and died as a result.  A man was attacked by another with a sock holding a lock—a common weapon—and he died of his injuries.  A man died of a medical condition.

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Another prisoner death

by Suzi Wizowaty, VCJR Director

Another prisoner has killed himself. Patrick Fennessey, 32, an inmate at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, attempted to hang himself Thursday.  He was taken to Dartmouth Hitchcock, still alive. But he died today in the hospital. 

In August, 2013, another inmate, Robert Mossey, hanged himself in a broom closet at Northwest State Correctional Facility in Newport.  His family is suing the Dept. of Corrections, alleging that DOC drove Mossey to suicide by keeping him in custody weeks after he could have been released, and by failing to monitor him after prescribing medication with psychological side effects. Mossey hanged himself three months after he began serving his sentence for retail theft.

Fennessey, too, was being held past his time of potential release.  He was serving a two-to-10-year sentence for burglary and unlawful trespass.  His minimum, or early release date, passed in 2011.  

These stories fill us with anguish. What will it take for enough of us to recognize that prisons by their nature are not places to “rehabilitate” people or “correct” behavior, but brutal, dehumanizing institutions, despite the best efforts of many decent, well-intentioned staff?

A criminal justice system that depends so heavily on incarceration as a tool is profoundly, perhaps irredeemably, flawed.Punishment doesn’t work. Inflicting suffering doesn’t help anyone. And now we have another death. Our hearts go out to the families of Patrick Fennessey.

Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform
PO Box 8753, Burlington, VT 05402
(802) 540-0440

Contact us:
anna.vcjr@gmail.com

Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform 
is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization

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