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Jim Kenyon: Losing Faith in the System

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 7/30/2017 12:16:36 AM
Modified: 7/31/2017 11:49:08 AM

After being out of prison for five months, 22-year-old Sam Ramsey is starting to question whether trying to better himself is really worth it.

Why bother hold down a job? Why bother stay in college? Why bother continue with mental health counseling?

“Sam is giving up hope,” his mother, Kerrie Ramsey, told me. “He’s getting the mindset, ‘I’m going back to jail, anyhow, so why does it matter?’ ”

It’s not hard to see why Sam Ramsey is losing faith. The kid can’t catch a break.

On Thursday morning, Ramsey and his mother drove two hours from their home in Windsor to the courthouse in Newport, Vt., for a hearing that lasted all of five minutes.

Talk about a waste of time and gas money. But that’s how Vermont’s criminal justice system works. Criminal charges that should not be filed in the first place clog up the courts for months. Cops and prosecutors demand their pound of flesh.

Last June, Ramsey, while still an inmate at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, got into a verbal altercation with a guard over a book that his mother had sent him. The book, part of a role-playing fantasy game, included a picture of a gun, which the guard claimed was against prison rules.

The disagreement escalated. Other guards were summoned. After being blasted with pepper spray and handcuffed, Ramsey allegedly spit at them. Following a Vermont State Police investigation, Ramsey was charged with assault with bodily fluids on a correctional officer — a misdemeanor punishable by up to two years in prison.

As prosecutors are known to do, Orleans County State’s Attorney Jennifer Barrett quickly offered Ramsey a deal: Plead guilty, and she’d recommend a prison sentence of 11 to 12 months.

Ramsey rejected the offer. His mother hired Bill Cobb, a longtime criminal defense attorney in the Northeast Kingdom.

Cobb pointed out that after the book incident, the Vermont Department of Corrections kept Ramsey in solitary confinement for more than a month. Wasn’t that enough of a punishment?

“Sam wasn’t trying to be disrespectful by spitting,” Cobb said. “He was trying to breathe.”

As I’ve written before, I met Ramsey in the summer of 2000, when he was 5, while working on a series about the working poor in the Upper Valley. He was living in a Hartford campground with his mother and two older brothers. The family had been homeless for a few months.

Ramsey began struggling with psychiatric illness in elementary school. At 11, the state placed him in institutions for troubled youths as far away as Georgia until he turned 18. That’s when Vermont shipped him to prison for a misdemeanor assault that occurred two years earlier at a juvenile facility.

He spent 3½ years behind bars.

“If you review everything about what Sam has been through in his life, you can make a good argument that he deserves some compassion,” Cobb told me when we talked outside the courtroom Thursday.

Ramsey is living with his mother and her longtime partner, Jim Bennett, a mail carrier, at their home in Windsor. Kerrie Ramsey signed up her son for Medicaid, so he could start seeing a mental health counselor at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Treatment he didn’t receive during his years in prison.

He found a $10-an-hour job at a fast-food restaurant. In May, he started classes at Community College of Vermont in Hartford. He recently got his driving learner’s permit.

But the chance that he could be headed back to prison — his “impending doom,” as he calls it — is taking a toll. “The stress is getting to me,” he said. “I can’t start my life until this is over.”

Until recently, he worked 55 hours a week, bringing home $500 or so. “I quit. It was getting to be too much,” he told me. “I was falling behind in my classes because I didn’t have time to do homework.”

Multiple trips to the Newport courthouse also led him to miss classes. With nearly a year having passed since Ramsey was charged, Cobb hoped the case would have been settled by now.

He went into it thinking that Ramsey could plead guilty to a misdemeanor and that would be the end of it. He’d get another mark on his criminal record, but he wouldn’t go back to prison or be placed on probation.

In other words, Ramsey could get on with his life.

During recent negotiations with Cobb, Barrett’s office did go so far as to agree to drop its demand for prison time, but still insisted on two years of probation.

The offer wasn’t as good as it sounds.

Ramsey would likely be under the thumb of the Department of Corrections probation and parole office in Springfield. The office is notorious among offenders and defense attorneys for having a “gotcha” mentality.

Offenders who violate conditions of their probation — missing a curfew or drinking a beer, for instance — can quickly find themselves behind bars for lengthy amounts of time. (I called the office on Thursday but didn’t hear back.)

Unwilling to take that chance, Ramsey told the judge on Thursday that he wanted a jury trial.

If Ramsey loses, he could go back to prison for two years. “I try not to think about that, but it’s impossible not to,” he told me. “It feels like I haven’t slept in a week.”

With the trial not likely until the fall, he’s got leads on a couple of part-time jobs that will enable him to earn some money and juggle school.

I called Ramsey’s home on Thursday evening but he wasn’t around. He was in Hartford for his computer applications class at Community College of Vermont.

Right where he belongs.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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