Through a Monitor, Darkly

More happy tidings concerning the much-ballyhooed “culture change” in the Vermont Department of Corrections in a VTDigger story about how state prisons are being reopened to visitors. The answer is slowly and incompletely, with strings attached. Unlike, say, the Scott administration’s policy toward the reopening of Vermont otherwise, which is to immediately remove all restraints.

The story also contains other tidbits that underscore the administration’s broader attitude toward inmates: that they don’t really deserve to be treated with dignity. There’s an undercurrent of “Inmates did something wrong and must be punished.” You see this over and over again in administration policy.

The DOC refused to prioritize inmates for vaccination, despite multiple outbreaks of Covid-19 inside our prisons. (Human Services Secretary made an absolute hash out of trying to explain that policy.) It put Covid-positive inmates into solitary confinement, which meant cruelly restrictive conditions normally reserved for the worst miscreants.

Now, the DOC is taking a go-slow approach to allowing visitors. “We want to make sure everybody is safe when we do this,” said Al Cormier, DOC director of operations. Gee, too bad that wasn’t the policy when inmates were made to wait their turn for vaccination even though they were demonstrably at high risk, and they could have been easily served because they’re all gathered in a handful of locations.

For now, visitation will only be allowed for inmates who have been vaccinated. Seems to me that they could allow visits if at least one of the parties, visitor or visitee, has gotten their shots, but I guess not. Bear in mind that these inmates have gone without in-person visitation for 15 months. They’d probably benefit from a little human contact.

In the absence of in-person visits, the only option has been via remote video. And according to one inmate’s spouse, the video service is total crap.

“You can’t see his facial features, and the same goes with us — if we move too much, he can’t see us. It pixelates,” Hubbell said. “It’s a tiny tablet, so we’re essentially quite small.”

Good grief. In this age of Zoom and GoToMeeting and Microsoft Teams and oversized screens, the DOC can’t do any better than a small, blurred picture?

I’m sure some will read this and say, “Well, they are criminals, after all. We don’t want to make prison too comfy.”

Sure. But the goal of imprisonment is rehabilitation. We want former inmates to be successful in life. We want to eliminate recidivism. If you don’t buy the simple “humanity” argument, then think of it this way: It’s in our best interest to give inmates a safe, secure environment with opportunities for acquiring employable skills and as much contact with loved ones as security concerns allow.

But then, it was also in our best interest to keep inmates from catching a potentially deadly disease that will have long-term effects on some. And to not punish sick inmates with weeks in solitary.

Just like it’s in our best interest to end our reliance on for-profit, out-of-state prisons. Those facilities, to put it kindly, have a spotty record on inmate care. And I doubt that inmates shipped off to Mississippi ever get to see their families in person. Still, despite a significant decline in our inmate population, the administration has done nothing to bring the inmates home.

I could also mention the administration’s glacial pace in addressing the unsanitary, inadequate conditions at our women’s prison. Or its openness to turning over construction of a massive prison “campus” to CoreCivic, a for-profit prison outfit looking for new revenue streams. (The deal would save a lot of money in the short term, but I’d want to take a close look at the long-term costs before I signed a deal. Especially if the other party has a track record of shortchanging care and services in the pursuit of profit. Myself, I wouldn’t trust ’em to build a shed in my backyard.)

Despite DOC interim commish James Baker’s persistent talk of “culture change,” there’s a Dickensian undercurrent in the administration’s prison policies. This deliberately-paced restoration of pre-pandemic visitation policy — following a deliberately-paced vaccination effort — is yet another data point showing that we are not treating our inmates as well as we should.

Not only for the sake of the inmates, but for public safety as well.

One more thing. Connecticut just became the first state to make inmate phone calls free of charge. In many states (including Connecticut until now), those charges are downright extortionate. It’s a profit center for telecom firms, corrections departments and county sheriffs. Shouldn’t Vermont follow Connecticut’s example?

According to the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, Vermont charges inmates $1.04 per minute for in-state calls. That’s modest compared to the predatory pricing in most states, but it’s still far more expensive than any other kind of telephone service anywhere. Point of comparison: Rates for interstate prison calls are capped at 21 cents a minute by the federal government. We’re charging five times as much for intrastate calls. Why the hell do we do that? Why the hell don’t we stop?


4 thoughts on “Through a Monitor, Darkly

  1. Richard Ley

    I was inspired by this article until I realize you left out several things.

    Number one you realize when you commit a crime what you are committing yourself to when you are finally called on the carpet to pay for that crime.

    It is sad when you make the decision to hurt other people or steal from other people you are also doing the same thing to your own family.

    As far as paying for phone calls i’m not sure where the money goes but it helps to pay for the cost to incarcerate these people it certainly is a welcome thing.

    You seem to know many of the facts of imprisonment but the one main fact that everyone should know is what does it cost the taxpayers in the state of vermont to keep one of these people in prison for a year?

    The biggest burden isn’t to these people that decide to become criminals it is to the taxpayers who have absolutely no choice but are forced to accept the burden of paying for this.

    Just think how wonderful this world would be without criminal conduct and the amount of money everyone would be able to keep in their pockets to pay for their own families to live without the stress and the financial burden.

    I would like you to continue to post the actual cost to the vermont taxpayer..

    And when you’re doing your research remember the cost is not only the price of incarceration it is judges, lawyers and the criminal justice system.

    And one of the costs that I doubt you will be able to calculate is the cost it does mentally to those that have crimes committed against them.

    I don’t wish anyone any bad luck but you have the freedom to make the choices you make which also dictates the policies you live under.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      That’s fine if you want to think that way. But a punitive prison system makes recidivism much more likely, and so we pay a price on the back end in addition to the cost of imprisonment.


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