Commentary, Opinion

The wind that shakes the barley

By Timothy R. Burgess

In 2004, convicted and sentenced to a term in Vermont’s correctional system, I had been back in Vermont for 12 years. It was the experience of being in prison that really showed me how institutional racism in our little state was flourishing. I had a visit from my family, and it was Mom, who looked around the visiting room at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, and said, “Are they trying to lock up every young black man under the age of 30 in the state of Vermont?”

It was a valid question, in the housing unit I was assigned to, there were six offenders who looked like me and 30 men of color. So, I decided the best way to get myself out would be through the law. A number of the inmates asked for me to be their inmate representative at their disciplinary hearings, and asked for advice and thoughts on their legal issues.

Two gentlemen of color approached and showed me the affidavits that told their stories. These two men, both from New York, came to Vermont on vacation and were on their way to the Burger King on Shelburne Road in South Burlington. Following traffic laws, and getting something to eat, a South Burlington police officer started to follow the car with New York plates.

According to the officer, they were, “acting suspiciously.” With no other explanation.

The officer followed them less than a mile to their hotel. They, according to the police report, “got out of their car, and looked like they were up to something as they looked at me and entered their hotel room.”

The officer involved called for, “Additional units to inquire why they were staying at the hotel.”  Additional units were called to the “scene” in order to execute a search of the two men’s room.  There was no information in the report of a warrant.

The officers approached the door of their room, and as they did, they “smelled marijuana” emitting from the room. At this point, the officers made the decision to use “forceful entry” into the hotel room and they kicked the door in. They found the two men with, according to the affidavit, “A lot of marijuana,” which totaled out to be an ounce and a half. The men said it was for personal use.

However, they were, “Arrested for attempting to sell and distribute,” according to the affidavit.  The men were thrown on the ground, handcuffed, and brought to the Correctional Center, “pending arraignment.”

These two men had no way of contacting family or friends for bail, or release, and asked for my assistance with getting in touch with family, and how to “fight this thing.” I assisted, with the help of my father, and got them in touch with family.

I was transferred to another facility, and never heard the outcome of the matter.

I can explain the many, many, incidents where Vermont policing had done the same thing. It was during my incarceration that I met a multitude of men of color with similar stories and I first heard the expression, mostly by men of color, mainly from out of state: “Come to Vermont for vacation, leave on Probation.”

The culture of corrections at that time was to have, as one correctional officer explained to me, “Keep them housed together as much as possible.”

I was fortunate to get along with many inmates and work with them. At that time, I came to understand, as best as I could, the plight of young men of color in Vermont and specifically in corrections. To be absolutely fair, the corrections system in Vermont is not full of officers who are bigots. What I found, and I think is true of not only corrections, is that like any community, it has its share of prejudice and racial intolerance. This reality is that I found that many of my fellow inmates at the time, who hailed from other states treated differently.

Men I served time with were not always innocent and were white, which led to a number of racially motivated problems. I was witness to an incident where members of a White Vermont “gang” associated with white supremacy group, threw a fireball on a man of color sleeping. I experienced white men, in an out of state prison, attempt to “recruit” me and other men, not of color, to join them in their efforts to “rid the” states of color.

So what does the future look like? Hard sayin’, not knowin’. What I can tell you is that in my years as an advocate for and with all inmates regardless of color, shape size, or gender, that progress is being made within the corrections community in Vermont. As some may remember, corrections is part of a program in coordination with the urban institute to exam the culture within our in-state facilities. I have been asked by the acting Commissioner to be part of that discussion. I can describe my own experience, what I saw, and how it will affect those of color. I am a white, red-headed Irish kid, and don’t pretend to know how it is to be anything else.

I would advise the following prescription to advance real change:

Educate oneself on the people around you, wherever you reside, especially here in Vermont.

Judgments should be reserved with regard to your fellow humans without exception.

Look around and try to show compassion for people, no matter what we look like, no matter what people say about others, regardless of anything else.

Think about it.

Timothy R. Burgess is an advocate/mediator from Waterville, Vermont.

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