Ange Greene is a survivor. She survived 10 years of heroin addiction and nearly two years in the crumbling warehouse with razor wire that Vermont calls a women’s prison.
Now Greene, 33, is surviving in the outside world where the mistakes she made earlier in life pop up instantly when anyone Googles her name.
Last week, Greene shared her story at a Vermont Law School conference called “Re-Imagining Justice,” which put the spotlight on a U.S. criminal justice system that many people, myself included, think is broken because of its over-reliance on mass incarceration.
Greene’s advice: “Invest our tax dollars into people. Not into punishment.”
But even in a state that prides itself in taking progressive approaches to social ills, punishment still wins out over treatment all too often.
At the VLS conference, Greene described her first few days at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington in chilling detail.
“I found myself three days into my (sentence) on the floor of the hole hallucinating and vomiting. The only thing I was given up until that point was a flat mattress, two green blankets, an orange jumpsuit and flip-flops.
“All of a sudden my cell door opened and I was told my case worker needed to see me. They shackled my ankles and cuffed my hands and paraded me down the hall like I was a caged animal.”
In 30 years, Vermont’s female prison population has swelled from 15 to 155. A majority are serving time for drug-related crimes.
At 13, Greene was diagnosed with lupus, a chronic autoimmune disorder for which she was prescribed painkillers to help manage her symptoms.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, Greene’s teenage years were fairly turbulent. By 16, Greene was living on her own and not long after was hooked on heroin. “At first, the decision to use is a choice,” she told me, after finishing her talk. “But it doesn’t take long for heroin to become something you can’t live without.”
By the time she moved to Burlington in 2009, she was shooting up five times a day. She supported her habit by taking up the world’s oldest profession. In 2010, WCAX.com reported that “police in Milton (Vt.) say they went undercover to bust a prostitute.”
Nothing like our tax dollars at work. Instead of treatment for her drug addiction, Greene got saddled with a criminal record.
In 2013, Greene again made news. She and a male companion were arrested for assaulting and robbing a 63-year-old female drug dealer. Greene told me that she had no idea that her friend intended to rob or attack the woman when he entered the house.
But it didn’t matter to authorities. In their way of thinking, Green deserved to be in prison.
Last year, I took a tour of Chittenden Regional, a 1970s low-slung building in an industrial complex just off the main drag. I had a hard time fathoming that Vermont taxpayers were getting their money’s worth — $73,000 a year per inmate — by locking up women, many of whom were battling substance abuse or mental illness, and then providing them with little or no treatment.
Listening to Greene, I recognized more than ever that mass incarceration isn’t the answer to curbing substance abuse, or helping people turn their lives around.
“In jail, there is no shortage of drugs,” she said. “If you know the right people, you can get whatever you want.”
Her first couple of months in prison were akin to crime school, she said. “I learned how to shoplift, commit identity theft, steal cars, smuggle drugs into the facility, and I even had conversations on how to get away with murder.”
She eventually enrolled in a prison “risk reduction” program run by a social worker who gave her the confidence she needed to change.
But when she was released from prison, Greene said, “I hit the streets without having received any drug treatment.”
She resumed her dependency on prescription painkillers and landed back in prison. Just before Greene was released in March, she had the good fortune to meet Lisa Bryan. A health coach, Bryan volunteers at Mercy Connections, a Burlington nonprofit organization that mentors incarcerated women.
At their introductory meeting, Greene asked Bryan why she wanted to help her. Bryan said she believed that everyone deserves a second chance.
Greene pondered Bryan’s answer a bit before breaking the silence. “And what do you think about Hitler?” she asked.
“She threw me a real curveball,” said Bryan, who attended the VLS conference to lend Greene moral support. “I could see right away that she was intelligent and witty.”
Greene has a slender build and wears wire-rimmed glasses that give her a bookish look. She’s working on a degree in criminal justice at Community College of Vermont and has designs on becoming a lawyer.
“Even though I had changed who I was, I couldn’t get a job to save my life,” she told the VLS audience.
Then Mercy Connections set her up with Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, a Burlington nonprofit organization that helped put together the VLS conference.
The grass-roots organization was able to offer Greene a paying job through a state grant program geared toward helping offenders get back on their feet. (One of the best criminal justice reform initiatives, for sure, that the state has going.)
As an outreach coordinator, Greene organizes community forums around the state to show Vermonters that many offenders can contribute to society if given resources and the opportunity to change.
“We have to stop shunning people for their mistakes and get to the core of their issues,” Greene said.
More good advice from a woman who has seen prison from both sides of the razor wire.