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Jim Kenyon: Vt. Woman Serves as a Voice for Ex-Convicts

  • 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.


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Anyone who wants to find out what convicted felons are up against once they’re back on the street should meet Ashley Sawyer, a 34-year-old Vermonter who spent nearly two years behind bars on a fraud-related conviction.

“I can’t get a job at McDonald’s,” Sawyer told a recent gathering of about 50 people in Norwich interested in criminal justice reform.

Sawyer went to prison in 2015 after spending 10 years or so battling an addiction to heroin and painkillers that led her to “cashing checks that weren’t mine.”

After her release from Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, Vermont’s 175-bed prison for women in South Burlington, Sawyer figured that she’d have to start at the bottom.

But with her criminal record, which included a misdemeanor for attempted retail theft, not even fast-food restaurants or big-box stores would give her a chance.

Sawyer started volunteering for the Burlington-based Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform. She talked openly about her heroin habit and her relapses following substance abuse treatment. She didn’t hide that along with being a drug user, she was once a drug dealer. She was candid about prison being “crime school,” where many nonviolent offenders come out in worse shape than when they went in.

Officials at the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also took note and decided their nonprofit organization could benefit from having someone with Sawyer’s life experiences on its payroll as it tries to build public support for reducing the state’s prison population.

“Vermonters who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system have enormous insight to offer to the general public, to policymakers, and to organizations like the ACLU,” said James Lyall, the Vermont ACLU’s executive director. “Add to that Ashley’s unique strengths as a speaker and an activist, and you can see we are very fortunate to have her working as an advocate.”

Sawyer now travels the state, including her recent stop in Norwich, to talk about criminal justice reform. Starting in January, she hopes to work on the ACLU’s behalf at the Statehouse.

Her story is a reminder that lives don’t just unravel overnight. Her struggles began long before she was shooting heroin. Growing up in Essex, Vt., she was sexually assaulted at 14, she said. After giving birth to twins in her early 20s, according to Sawyer, she was prescribed painkillers for complications with the C-section. It would be another decade, however, before she became entangled in the criminal justice system.

“My real crime was addiction,” she wrote on the ACLU’s website in July. “Like many others, I was a heroin addict and committed these low-level crimes to support my daily use. My addiction, as that of many women, spurred from serious trauma, including sexual and domestic violence.”

Sawyer is working with Nico Amador, the Vermont ACLU’s community organizer, on the “Campaign for Smart Justice.” It’s part of the national ACLU’s effort to cut the U.S. prison population by half. With 2.2 million people incarcerated in this country, that’s a lofty goal. (The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners.)

“We need dramatic changes in our system. We can’t just tinker,” Amador said at the Norwich forum, which was hosted by the Upper Valley chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, a national network that developed following a series of police shootings involving minorities.

For starters, the national mindset must change. “We need to treat drugs as a public health issue and not as a criminal matter,” Amador said.

Fueled largely by the war on drugs, Vermont — along with the rest of the country — saw its prison population roughly triple between 1980 and 2005. In the last decade, however, the rate of incarceration has declined, reducing the state’s prison population to 1,700 people.

The decline has had more to do with economics than enlightenment. Starting with the financial meltdown of 2008, Vermont and other states recognized that locking up offenders — particularly nonviolent ones — was a questionable use of tax dollars. But Vermont still jails twice as many people as it did 20 years ago, a big reason the state’s corrections budget runs $150 million annually.

Criminal justice reform “isn’t about asking taxpayers for more money, but reallocating resources,” Sawyer said, citing the need for the state to invest more in substance abuse treatment, job training and transitional housing for offenders just out of prison.

But it’s not just about money. Attitudes must also change. This summer, Sawyer wrote on the ACLU website that due to her felony convictions “when my own children have school field trips, I am barred from being a chaperone.”

I asked her about that on the phone the other day. Society portrays all felons as “violent, scary people,” Sawyer said. “So if white, middle-class Vermonters hear that someone is a felon, of course, they don’t want them around their children.”

Sawyer has heard people say that a “junkie” with her criminal history “should still be in prison.”

She then told me, “Those are the people I want to talk with. Not to change their minds, but to understand where they’re coming from.”

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