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Build healthy communities, not prisons

Activists rally in Vermont against expansion of the carceral state

A transcript of a speech last month by Jayna Ahsaf, an organizer with the Vermont chapter of the FreeHer campaign from the abolitionists group the National Council speaking to activists on the need for a long-term campaign to abolish prisons and fund people and healthy communities.

On April 15, FreeHer VT led a rally at the Vermont State House in Montpelier, “Build Healthy Communities, Not Prisons,” in opposition to Vermont’s plan to spend $250 million on building four new prisons, $70 million of which is slated for a new women’s prison. FreeHer called for a ban on all new prison construction, stopping the use of state money on incarceration, ending cash bail, and instead funding communities and schools. The rally was endorsed by a couple dozen organizations and unions and over a hundred activists turned out. With the state legislature determined to move forward in expanding the carceral state, FreeHer organizer Jayna Ahsaf gave the following speech to rally activists for a long-term campaign to abolish prisons and fund people and healthy communities.

The rally in its entirety including Jayna’s speech is available from ORCA Media on their YouTube channel.

Hello, beloved community! Thank you so much for joining us here today in solidarity with our mission to “Build Healthy Communities, Not Prisons.” My name is Jayna Ahsaf and I am the Vermont FreeHer campaign organizer for the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls (The Council). It is an honor to be here with you all today and I am so thankful for all the people that worked to make this day possible.

I want to start with some backstory to how we got here today. Community members have been working for years to shift priorities, push for change, and hold stakeholders accountable to how they are not putting communities first. FreeHer, as the new kid on the scene, has been graciously accepted by numerous grassroots groups and organizations whose consistent hard work has made our fight possible here today and I am so thankful to them for all that they have contributed to the movement and for helping us build momentum around our mission to end incarceration for women and girls.

FreeHer and coalition members have been fighting all legislative session to be heard and dispel the narrative that Vermonters want new prison construction. As many of you here today know, we are in desperate need of housing, schools, childcare, transportation, union jobs, and other community supports that allow our communities to thrive and flourish. One of our goals today is to highlight that abolition is the intersection of all movements. The end of incarceration encompasses climate justice, education justice, anti-racism work, and overall, the collective liberation of all oppressed people.

Vermont can be a leader in what it means to envision and build a new world, one in which we do not utilize punishment as our tool for accountability, where our biggest mistakes do not mean the deprivation of our humanity, and where our priorities are shifted to care from cages. Looking around at all the work being done in our state, you can see the potential of the beautiful communities we could build that center connection, care, and love.

Quoting from one of the movement’s treasured leaders, Ruthie Wilson Gilmore, “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” We have the tools here in Vermont to create the self-sustaining, cooperative, and loving communities that would make prisons obsolete. With the estimated costs of the new women’s prison already set to at least $70 million – the total costs after everything is said and done will probably be significantly more. Committing to expending that outrageous cost to preserving prisons and incarceration is incredibly backward(s).

We only have 49 sentenced people in the state’s only women’s prison, Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF) – the rest are held on bail or some other detainer. If you look deeper, a majority of the remaining 49 folks most likely need mental health care or substance use treatment instead of prison. We are talking about incarcerating a small number of people for $70 million.

Towards the end of the April 15 event at the Vermont State House, middle and high school students perform a dance in front of an appreciative crowd of activists followed by closing remarks from Jayna Ahsaf. Video Credit: ORCA Media.


Our state is struggling and has desperate needs that must be urgently addressed before [public] money is even considered to be spent on prisons. We will shortly have 1,500 – 500 of whom are children – unhoused with the termination of our emergency hotel program. We have the second highest rates of homelessness per capita, our schools’ infrastructure is crumbling, and we will imminently be a refuge to folks when the climate crisis makes large parts of the U.S. uninhabitable.

As more and more people become displaced and have less access to social services, the more we will see our community members ending up in prisons. Our fear is that the State has no public safety plans that involve nourishing communities by investing in them — but only through control mechanisms like prisons. We need immediate, diverse, and holistic solutions to begin to be developed to address the assortment of impending disasters. Pausing prison construction is in everyone’s best interest.

This week (week of April 10) the legislature received written testimony from those incarcerated in Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF) saying NO to prison construction and YES to community support! The time has come for change, and we are creating a steady roar that is only intensifying with time! We have to continue to rise up and push back against the construction of this new prison with everything we’ve got because a new prison will be detrimental for our communities and our progress towards an abolitionist future.

We have tangible and real solutions for the state to follow. We hope to create a model for the rest of the nation to use in response to their own efforts to move towards abolition but we need the continued support of neighbors like you to get stakeholders to understand that the time for abolition is NOW! Please consider joining our collective to help us build up people power if you are not involved already. We currently need a massive amount of support around making sure a moratorium on prisons happens and that there is a working group in the legislature looking at alternatives to incarceration.

I will end by saying that the vision for abolition is to build up vibrant, whole, and strong communities. We want to see facilities in our neighborhoods with wrap-around services so our people can heal with us and so funding that is meant for harm reduction, therapy, mental health, and other supports are actually in the hands of the people and not in the hands of the state or Department of Corrections! People are suffering and we need to start getting creative with our solutions. Let’s take a pause and look at the way we do things. More carceral infrastructure is a step backward(s) and we must demand better for our communities!

Thanks to Tempest Collective member Ashley Smith for writing the introduction.

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