Advocates Seek Improvements for Incarcerated Women

Wednesday, October 01, 2014
South Royalton — Julie Brisson claims she has one of the “craziest” Facebook pages out there, alluding to the fact that she has friends on the social media site that range from family members and childhood buddies to former inmates.

“If you look closely, you can find out who is who,” Brisson said, drawing laughter from a large crowd at a summit on women in corrections at Vermont Law School on Tuesday.

What added to the length of Brisson’s list of Facebook friends were the people she met while serving time at Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton, Vt.

Brisson served 199 days in 2009 for issuing a series of bad checks, carrying charges of felony false pretenses, and fraudulently opening an account in her ex-husband’s name, she said during the day-long program.

Brisson’s record is now a thing of the past though, and she uses her experience as a formerly incarcerated woman to advocate for others in her shoes. She said her inability to locate housing out of prison and find transportation to complete a work crew program added to her minimum sentence.

“The challenge was trying to get out,” Brisson said.

Now, Brisson, of St. Johnsberry, Vt., applies what she learned from her stay at the correctional facility — and the knowledge she gained in higher education — to help guide the Department of Corrections, state legislators and nonprofit organizations on a path to redefining the criminal justice system and redesigning imprisonment for women.

A group of about 200 people from various educational and professional backgrounds met at Vermont Law School to zero in on incarcerated women, who make up about 7 percent of the state’s incarcerated population, or on average about 160 people. It costs taxpayers more than $80,000 per inmate annually.

Since 2011, female inmates have been housed at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington. They were moved from the Swanton, Vt.-based facility when the state identified there was unused space and embarked on an endeavor to bring home Vermont’s male inmate population being housed out of state, said Kim Bushey, program services director for the state Department of Corrections.

In doing so, the women were moved to a smaller facility that can’t accommodate various vocational programming, such as a modular home building program that teaches inmates skills to be successful in the construction industry.

The programs gave women “marketable skills,” Brisson said.

An applied program that remains? Sewing.

On Tuesday, some of the roughly eight panel speakers said that incarcerated women have different needs than their male counterparts, and should be treated independently.

“We are here looking at the issue of incarcerated women. Why do we have so many? Who is incarcerated? Why? Why are the numbers going up? Why are we not providing services? Why are these moves from facilities happening? Why did we move the woman to Chittenden where we know everything is worse,” asked State Rep. Suzi Wizowaty, D-Chittenden, who doubles as the executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform.

Wizowaty and others in attendance on Tuesday said that more programming needs to be established for women suffering from mental health issues, trauma and substance abuse, specifically.

Bushey, with the Department of Corrections, said as a product of the move to Chittenden, “we have not reduced our services.” She added: “We have worked with our community partners to develop increased gender specific services in the community and some of our partners are very committed to working with us in that way.”

During the summit, Bushey said mental health and substance abuse services as well as mentoring, employment and educational programs are in place.

Though programming is available, the consensus in the room on Tuesday was that more could be created — and not just programming for women at the time of incarceration.

Advocates argued that devising pathways to increase access to services prior to a woman committing a crime, as well as programming to ease the re-entry into the community from prison were necessary. Panel speakers, as well as audience members who often engaged in the discussion, talked about the possibility of coming up with a model for housing mentally ill individuals who don’t need to be in prison and would benefit from another approach.

Brisson, who is now a peer network coordinator for the Vermont Center of Independent Living, highlighted how difficult it was for her to transition back into the community.

She said her inability to find a residence forced her to be “stuck” in prison longer. And her failure to find transportation to attend her work crew at a food pantry resulted in violating her probation.

Though additional programming might have shortened her stay, Brisson said, it was ultimately support systems that paved the road to her current path.

“I asked for help and I took advantage of every program and person out there that could possibly help me,” Brisson said in a separate interview.

She was not alone.

Amy Beede, a former inmate, said support from an outreach team comprised of law enforcement and mental health professionals has kept her out of the prison system.

“The outreach team has been very helpful and that is one thing that keeps me out of trouble,” Beede, an audience member, said.

Former Windsor County State’s Attorney Bobby Sand, who is now the governor’s liaison to state criminal justice programs, said one thing the state can do “right now” to achieve a fair, resilient and responsive criminal justice system — for both men and women — is to reform the criminal code.

He said reforming the code would set consistent prosecution standards throughout the state. Currently, he said behavior that happens on one side of a county line may result in heftier sanctions than the same crime in a different county.

“Vermont’s current code is a mash up of a variety of priorities and prescriptions and penalties,” Sand said. “There is no guidance in the criminal code that says who should be in and who should be out.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at or 603-727-3248.

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