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Walls

03/12/08 5:55PM By Bill Schubart
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42,000 Vermont tax dollars per year are spent to keep one offender behind a wall. This is four times what the most expensive public school systems spend annually to educate children and almost twice as much as the per pupil cost of public higher education. Meanwhile, our federal tax dollars are being used to build a wall to keep Mexican neighbors out of the United States in spite of the fact that our farms, orchards and factories can't seem to function without them.

Frost says: Before I built a wall I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offence. Something there is that doesn't love a wall, that wants it down!

A wall can have many useful purposes in a society like the heartbreakingly beautiful Vietnam Memorial. A well insulated wall protects us from winter and retains heat in our homes.

We seem to imagine, however, that walls will protect us from endemic social conditions like terrorism, drugs, illegal immigration, health pandemics and crime. We believe that a properly built wall will keep these elements at bay or at best hide them from view. We are wrong. It does neither. It gives us a false sense of security, a feeling that we are doing something real when we are not. And while there are admittedly people who must be kept behind walls forever in our society, we now have more people locked away per capita than any other nation on earth, including the more repressive regimes of China and Russia.

We are building a wall between parts of Mexico and the United States to stem the migration of workers driven by the deep variance in economic opportunities that exists between Mexico and the United States because we are unwilling to take low paying jobs for which Mexicans are grateful.

We believe that building walls will make us safe when that which elicits our worst fears often lives among or even within us.

Not only do we build physical walls, we build intellectual walls with censorship of scientific, literary and educational concepts in our schools. We build emotional walls with new feel-good pharmaceuticals - all presumably to feel more secure.

I would argue that the $130M we spend in Vermont each year keeping prisoners behind walls could be put to better use, but only if we are willing to let non-violent offenders live and work in our communities and find their way back to being productive citizens. Programs like Reparative Justice, Teen Challenge, Court Diversion, Dismas House, Vermont Youth Conservation Corps, Vermont Works for Women, Spectrum and several other programs without walls have proven cost-effective.

As a nation will we eventually find ourselves walled in by our own fears? In Vermont at least there are hopeful signs that we can do better than that.

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