The Governor Scott administration has proposed building a new 925 bed prison “campus” at an estimated cost of $140 million dollars. The campus would be located in northwestern Vermont.
There are currently approximately 1,700 people incarcerated including 250 people who are in prisons out of state. There are a variety of reasons why we have so many people incarcerated. Approximately 150 inmates are eligible for release but held for lack of transitional housing. Some 350 to 400 people are held as pretrial detainees. Some need to be held because of violence they have committed but approximately one quarter of the prison population are held simply because they cannot afford bail. Many opiate addicts end up in prison because they have stolen money or goods to feed their addiction but have not committed any violent harm to others.
Smart Justice Vermont estimates that Vermont’s prison population could be reduced by 50% through bail and sentencing reforms, a prosecutor accountability initiative, drug policy reforms, and by advancing racial and economic justice throughout Vermont. Restorative justice is another good way of helping deal with people who have committed crimes. Interestingly the Mayor of New York city has recently proposed reducing that city’s incarceration by 50% and closing the infamous Riker’s Island prison.
Buddhist Peace Action Vermont, an organization of “engaged” Buddhists, opposes the construction of this massive prison because of our spiritual grounding. People who commit crimes are doing so largely as a result of their own suffering due to the way they were treated as children or the alienation they experience in their communities, as clearly shown by the school shootings in recent months. Living behind bars in prisons also creates tremendous stress on the imprisoned person because of the isolation, anxiety, difficulty in maintaining their physical and mental health, not connecting with nature, and in the case of building a prison in northwestern Vermont extremely long distances for many family members and friends to travel.
While for the safety of society some offenders need to be constrained, for the greater, long term good of communities, they need to be liberated from the conditions that led to their offenses, including ignorance, poverty and hatred. What could we provide with the $140 million to be spent largely on bricks and mortar and guards, if it was spent instead on rehabilitation, drug treatment, education, job training, and transition housing?