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Community activists push for prison alternatives

Published: Sep. 23, 2020 at 1:11 AM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - A local group of activists is re-imagining Vermont with no prisons.

Women’s Justice and Freedom Initiative held a community discussion on Tuesday night to hear from those in support of prison abolition. The group brainstormed alternatives to incarceration. Their main goal is to ultimately get rid of all prisons in the state, specifically Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, which is the state’s only women’s prison. The prison came under fire last December after allegations of widespread sexual abuse by male guards.

Studies show 80% of incarcerated women are victims of violence and abuse. Prison abolitionists believe the state should redefine how it responds to traumatized people.

Some of the panelists, including Ashley Messier, who is the executive director of WJFI, were formerly incarcerated at CRCF. She’s a survivor of domestic and sexual violence and believes prison is ineffective in addressing victims' underlying trauma. Messier thinks the answer is to confront those issues in more holistic, healing and restorative ways, such as therapy and rehabilitation, to actually meet their needs.

“As someone who was a victim of domestic and sexual violence and human trafficking, I did not find any of those solutions in a jail cell,” Messier said. “My community was not any safer because of my incarceration.”

The group is asking community stakeholders to think about things Vermont could do differently. They’re also wondering what will happen if CRCF is eventually shut down.

“We’re going to have to give examples of what is it going to look like in three years,” said one panelist. “Because I think everyone agrees that we need to close CRCF and the fight is going to be over what happens next.”

“What do we do about the people who are going to lose their jobs if CRCF closes?” asked another panelist. “We have to really be thinking about all of that and creating this story about what could be.”

The group says they will continue working with local and state leaders and the Department of Corrections around the steps they perceive to be necessary for creating alternatives to incarceration, to divest from punishment, and invest in people and communities that will better respond to harm.

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