‘There’s a Disconnect’: In Prison Visit, Vt. Prosecutors Learn About Life Behind Bars

Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George suggests more attorneys try to better their understanding of the daily lives of the people whose cases they prosecute

The elected state's attorney serving Vermont's most populous county took her staff inside a prison Tuesday to learn more about the daily lives of the people whose cases the office prosecutes.

Behind the razor wire fences of the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans Town, Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George — who is known for fresh approaches to the job — brought prosecutors, clerks, advocates and others to see what it's like behind bars.

"I absolutely think there's a disconnect — myself included," George said, describing what she sees as a lack of awareness many prosecutors have about how prisons feel and function.

George and her team stopped into empty cells, the booking area, the medical services center and the kitchen during a guided tour from the facility's superintendent and director of security. Several asked questions about prison policies, such as how much recreation time inmates are allowed, and how punishment is administered for offenses in the facility.

George and several of her fellow visitors commented how they were struck by all the noise inside the facility, especially the slamming doors.

"They're just really hard to—" George said of the noises, before she was interrupted by the sound of a slamming door. "They're hard to avoid."

The state's attorney told necn she's doing this because she thinks prosecutors have an ethical obligation to know more about this part of the criminal justice system.

Members of the Chittenden County State's Attorney's Office who took part in the site visit said they were grateful for the opportunity.

"I think every prosecutor should come and tour," Deputy Chittenden County State's Attorney Franklin Paulino said of his peers around Vermont and the nation. "And I think it'll cause you to, in negotiating, to think twice — especially when it's a minor-level offense."

"I think it definitely helps to add perspective to the work that we do, but difficult to say if it impacts a lasting change at this point," said Emily Pijanowski, another deputy state's attorney, answering a question from necn about whether the trip to Northwest Correctional will change the way she approaches her job.

When the plan was announced, a handful of skeptics took to Twitter to urge the state's attorney to remember victims of crimes while on her tour. George insists she keeps those impacts top of mind each and every day.

But when it comes to punishments, George said criminal justice reform efforts should result in shorter sentences at times, or in others, alternatives to prison altogether.

"Incarcerating people has some benefits in very particular cases," George said in an interview with necn. "There's also a lot of downfalls to incarcerating people. They could come out into our community more dangerous than they went in."

The prosecutor acknowledged a limited visit does not make her staff experts in prison life, but said she is confident it has opened eyes.

There are no additional prison visits scheduled at this time, George said late Tuesday, noting that she would like to arrange one to the state's sole facility housing female inmates.

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