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Jim Kenyon: Turned Away From Prison

It is the policy of the Vermont Department of Corrections to encourage inmates in a manner consistent with security to have regular social visits with relatives and other individuals in order to maintain close family and community ties.

­— From the Vermont Department of Corrections Policies and Directives

∎ 

When I arrived at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, Vt., last Sunday morning at 8:45, a dozen or so people — mothers, wives and young children, mostly — were waiting to be let in for their weekly two-hour visit with the imprisoned men in their lives.

Among those in line: 87-year-old Muriel Powell, of Clifton Park, N.Y. She had a slender build, short white hair and a hearing aid. In her black slacks and collared red shirt, she looked as though she was dressed for church.

Just not this Sunday morning.

A friend had driven her 230 miles from upstate New York to Vermont’s state prison in the Northeast Kingdom. Her 55-year-old son, Peter Powell, of Island Pond, Vt., had been behind bars for a couple of weeks. From their phone conversation a few days earlier, she wasn’t entirely sure why. In hopes of getting the full story, Powell wanted to talk with her son face-to-face on Sunday.

Clutching her photo ID, she approached the visitors’ check-in table. A guard sitting at the table thumbed through the pages of a notebook, which had the names of inmates and their “authorized” visitors.

The guard flipped through the notebook again. She looked up Powell. Sorry, you can’t see your son, today, said the guard.

Powell didn’t make a scene. She walked away from the table and sat down in the waiting room. “I don’t understand it,” she told me later. “What did they think? That I had cocaine, or whatever they call it, hidden in my shoes?”

Bob Arkley, the prison’s shift supervisor on Sunday, entered the waiting room. There was nothing he could do for her, he said.

Why wasn’t she on the visitor list?

From my dealings with the Vermont Department of Corrections, it’s hard to say. Her son might not have filled out the right paperwork. Prison officials might not have gotten around to approving her visit. The paperwork might have been lost.

With the state Department of Corrections, anything is possible.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been working to arrange a visit with a 19-year-old inmate in Newport. (That’s a story for another day, however.) Since I was allowed to talk on the phone with the inmate and had spoken with a Newport prison official more than a week earlier about the visit, I assumed that everything was a go for last Sunday.

“It doesn’t appear you’re on the list,” said the guard, who was handling the check-in of visitors.

After hanging around the waiting room for 15 minutes, I began to get the feeling that what happened to the 87-year-old mother wasn’t out of the ordinary — inmates’ relatives can drive hundreds of miles, only to be turned away.

“You’re seeing it in action,” Arkley told me.

On Sunday, Allison Schulz left her home in North Haverhill at 7:15 a.m. and drove nearly one and a half hours to Newport to see her son, Anthony Manning, who had been locked up since October following his arrest on robbery and assault charges. In April, Manning, 25, was transferred to a jail in New Hampshire, where he also had legal problems. In June, he was brought back to Vermont.

Before her son was transferred to New Hampshire, Schulz had visited him in Newport. But that didn’t matter. Her son needed to file a new visitor list. Because the state needs to conduct background checks on potential visitors, Vermont corrections officials told me, it can take one to two months for a person to get on the authorized visitor list. (In New Hampshire, similar background checks take about two or three weeks, said Jeff Lyons, the spokesman for the corrections department.)

Just as Muriel Powell had been, Schulz was turned away on Sunday morning. “It’s terrible,” she said, “but what can I do?

I watched Schulz head for the parking lot to make the lengthy drive home.

Powell, a widow for 20 years, couldn’t leave quite yet, though. A friend from Clifton Park named Jack Kelley had driven her to Newport. Kelley, 78, had dropped her off at the visitor entrance. He planned to wait for her in the prison parking lot. The prison has rules against loitering, however. A security precaution, I’m told.

Kelley drove into downtown Newport, planning to return at 11 a.m. when visitation hours ended. Until Kelley returned, Powell was stranded. She sat in the prison’s waiting room, which had no air conditioning. She dabbed the tears from her eyes with a tissue. “When you get to be my age, you don’t expect to be going through something like this,” she told me. (I learned on Monday that her son was being held for violating the conditions of his release that stemmed from a July 1 domestic disturbance.)

Powell stood up to toss her tissue in a waste paper basket. “I’m not a person who can just sit around,” she said. “I told the guards that their metal detector might ring when I go through. I have steel pins in my leg from a fall when I was mountain climbing.”

She headed for the door. “I’m going outside for some air.”

When she didn’t return after 10 minutes, a guard meandered out the door to make sure Powell “hadn’t fallen down.” Powell wasn’t in sight. “Her ride must have picked her up,” said the guard.

I wasn’t so sure.

It was a humid day. The prison is surrounded by woods and about five miles from downtown Newport. I drove out of the parking lot to the prison’s access road to look for her. I found her standing in the road, talking with a guard patrolling the prison grounds in a pickup truck.

Powell described Kelley’s car to me. A half mile away, I found a Ford sedan with New York license plates on the side of the two-lane road. Kelley was sitting inside working on a crossword puzzle. “I’ll go get her,” he said.

The Department of Corrections doesn’t keep track of how many visitors are rejected. It can afford to be indifferent. Inmates and their families have no power. If they or anyone close to them complain too loudly, inmates could find themselves shipped to one of the for-profit prisons in Kentucky and Arizona that Vermont pays to warehouse inmates that it doesn’t have room for.

On Monday, I talked with Vermont Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito. During his six years of running the department, I’ve found him to be one of the more cerebral state executives. But he’s fighting a losing battle. Like the rest of the country, Vermont has too many people locked behind bars. It’s why the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population.

Pallito looked into what happened Sunday. “Our staff completely followed protocol,” he said. Only people who are on the “authorized visitor list” are allowed in, he said.

The big worry is contraband, said Pallito. He agreed that an 87-year-old woman didn’t pose much of a threat in that regard. Pallito said the incident is reason enough to “revisit” the policy. “I think there’s an opportunity for more flexibility,” he said.

Rules that block moms from visiting their incarcerated sons because of insufficient paperwork come across as more than just callous. They’re shortsighted, too.

The vast majority of inmates will eventually be released. When they’re back on street, many of them will need to lean on family for help with finding work and a suitable place to live.

Although it’s doing better than many states, Vermont’s recidivism rates are nothing to be proud of. More than 40 percent of released inmates are re-incarcerated within three years, according to Gov. Peter Shumlin’s website.

The state should be encouraging families to stay in touch, as it claims to do in its policy. Regular visits by loved ones can be a lifeline for an inmate. One mother who makes a four-hour round trip from southern Vermont to Newport every week told me on Sunday, “I want my son to know that I care.”

On Tuesday, I heard from Muriel Powell. She’s planning to make the 12-hour round-trip from Clifton Park, which is near Saratoga, to Newport this weekend to visit her son. She’ll be driving alone. “It’s a long trip,” she said, “but I have to do it. I need to figure out what’s going on.”

The Vermont Department of Corrections might want to be doing the same.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com