The first time I visited a prison in Vermont was in 2009. Pathways Vermont had barely opened. I entered the Springfield Correctional facility and was escorted to a unit where men with behavior issues were separated from the general population. I was left in front of a solid metal door, and directed to squat down and talk through the food tray slot to a man inside the cell. All I had been was that the man’s name was Joe*, he was 19, and “crazy.”
When I started to talk in a low, soft voice, I could see Joe crawl across the floor on his hands and knees. He was bare chested and covered in something — I thought blood, or maybe feces. I saw pain and fear in his eyes. He cocked his head towards me as if listening, then scampered back into a corner and curled up into a ball.
I was not able to help Joe. I did not have all the knowledge, nor the resources at the time. But Joe and his story stayed with me. He motivated and inspired me to do something to make a difference so that people struggling with mental health challenges can get the help they need to live in the community, and not behind bars.
In 2010, Pathways Vermont began a unique collaboration with the Vermont Department of Correction and the Vermont Department of Mental Health to provide housing and comprehensive mental health supports to offenders who have struggled with homelessness, and serious mental health challenges. Pathways Vermont practices Housing First, a model that has been proven to be effective in supporting community reintegration, maintaining public safety, reducing offender recidivism and managing mental health and substance abuse challenges. It is also incredibly cost-saving as well.
Since the project’s inception, we have moved more than 160 individuals out of correctional facilities and into their own homes, with supports tailored to meet each individual’s needs to live successfully in the community. We currently provide services to people coming out of corrections to Chittenden, Franklin/Grande Isle, Windham, Washington and Addison counties.
Our success rate is incredible: 81% of program participants have not returned to long term incarceration. Furthermore, this program reduces rates of incarceration and saves the State of Vermont — and you as taxpayers — money. By providing individuals with housing and follow-up support, our program breaks the cycle of incarceration. We cannot undo the years and years of tragic incarceration of individuals experiencing mental health challenges, but we can do better going forward. We have the knowledge. We can choose to allocate adequate resources.
Joe, our paths may not cross again in this lifetime, but this I know: I will remember you forever and I will not stop advocating for your freedom.
*Name has been changed to protect Joe’s identity.