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McCallum: Prison and the economic downturn

02/11/09 5:55PM By Mary McCallum
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(HOST) Commentator Mary McCallum says that the economic downturn is also affecting Vermont's prison population.

(MCCALLUM) I work in one of Vermont's largest prisons, which allows me to get a perspective on things that folks on the outside cannot. A prison is its own cement and razor wire microcosm of the outside world; its inhabitants experience many of the same day-to-day stresses and dreams that outsiders do: concern about their kids, loss of income, excitement over sports teams, daily boredom, anxiety about the state of the world, and feeling hemmed in by bad choices on the path of life. Like us, they sometimes need psychological counseling or antidepressants to counter the stress, only they don't have to be on a health plan to get it - it comes with the accomodations.

The economic downturn is running through world economies like a bad flu that will take years to recover from, and people across America are losing jobs, homes, health insurance, retirement savings and hope. That is the reality out on the street, as the jargon goes. But what are the effects of this downturn on those incarcerated in Vermont's prisons?

Despite the countless negatives that go with being locked up, for some offenders prison is an unconventional port in the storm in this bleeding economy. They are housed, clothed, fed, doctored, educated and recreated. They don't face each workday wondering if they will get a pink slip, or deal with a sick child or an angry landlord. So what's the bad news here? Should we all aim for an incarceration vacation?

The reality is that our men and women behind bars will face a grim situation that waits for them just outside the gate. The majority of offenders released back into society - and let's face it, most of them WILL be released - have two big things on their minds: return to the family and get a job.

In those last three words lies the greatest challenge for the unskilled, the undereducated, and those who've been out of the workforce for a stretch of years: get a job. Add to that the requirement for some that they need a pre-approved residence lined up, and there is a recipe for failure. Without a job to pay security and rent there will be no apartment, and for certain inmates who's release is conditional on employment and housing, their release date can be pushed forward for months.

That is a daily worry for those who are close to getting out. For the first time in years, the getting out part has oddly turned out to be a whole lot more stressful than the staying in part. Yes, there are some more immediate effects of the dwindling economy on inmates behind the wire, like fewer family visits because of the price of gas required to drive great distances, but the real bogeyman waits outside.

When an offender walks out the door to freedom, he or she will face tougher challenges than most of the unemployed already standing in line in front of him: unexplained gaps on a resume, reentry into a changed world, no savings, few skills, and worst of all, a record.

And for those inside, there is nothing but time to contemplate how the world economy will affect them when they reach that long-held dream of release.
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