Want to Promote Prison Reform? Host a Cable-Access Show
BURLINGTON - House Rep. Jason Lorber is not the next Jay Leno. But his new television show promises to turn heads - assuming anyone tunes in.
On February 26, Lorber (D-Burlington) launched a new show on CCTV Channel 17 entitled "Correcting Corrections." The program aims to spark dialogue about Vermont's ever-expanding prison system. Each segment, which is repeated seven times on a sporadic schedule and podcasted online [find podcasts here], features a talk-show-style conversation between Lorber and notable local activists, officials and former inmates. But "Correcting Corrections" is no polemical rant against the Department of Corrections, Lorber claims. Rather, it focuses on Vermont's prison dilemma from a "budget and safety perspective."
Vermont spends 10 percent of its budget on corrections, up from 4 percent in 1992, Lorber points out. Plus, he says, Vermont sends 25 percent of its inmates out of state - a practice that drains local economies of jobs and revenue. A 14 percent increase in Vermont's incarcerated female population during fiscal year 2006 has exacerbated the problem: It costs $72,000 per year to incarcerate women, compared with $42,000 for men. Scaling back corrections spending to 4 percent of the overall budget "would free up $70 million," Lorber speculates. "That's a lot of money that could be used to make society safer, prevent crime, or [institute] tax cuts."
True to his holistic approach, Lorber invited Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan to be his inaugural guest. Donovan, a criminal prosecutor, notes of the show, "Any time you raise the public's awareness about an issue, it's helpful." He laments that Vermont spends more money on prisons than on higher education, adding, "I think incarceration is warranted for a lot of people - but we have to start looking at alternatives."
The second show brought together three guests. Cara Gleason is an organizer with Northern Lights shelter, a halfway house for newly released female inmates that opened in Burlington last year. Hal Colston is executive director of the Burlington nonprofit NeighborKeepers, which works on poverty issues. And former Senator Rita McCaffrey now serves as state director of Dismas House, a pair of residential spaces in Burlington and Rutland for released inmates and college students. "It was a good idea to have the three of us together," Gleason reflects. "In the criminal justice system, it's important for all the service providers to work together."
Nonetheless, it's unclear how much impact "Correcting Corrections" will have on the greater Vermont community. Gleason herself admits she hasn't seen the show; Donovan has seen it, but says he's not a typical viewer. "I watch City Council meetings [on CCTV]," he notes. "I must have too much time on my hands."
Lorber says he's received "feedback from across the state" from advocates, former inmates and their family members. But when pressed for an estimate, he puts the number of responses at 12.
Lorber, 40, is no stranger to entertainment. He's performed as a stand-up comic in cities such as San Francisco and Atlanta, though he says, "I started being funny seriously in Vermont." He's also acted in films, plays and television commercials.Lorber doesn't count either television or prison reform among his lifelong passions, however. His only other TV production, a variety show entitled "Youth Visions," aired 22 years ago, when he was 18, on public access television in Long Beach, California.
As for prison reform, Lorber decided to focus on it only after meeting with House Speaker Gaye Symington, before his first election to the Statehouse in 2004. Now Lorber serves on the House Committee on Institutions, which sponsors corrections-related legislation. In December 2005, he published a report, "53 Voices on Corrections in Vermont," which quoted directly from interviews he'd conducted with corrections officials, inmates and public advocates around the state.
David Zuckerman (D-Burlington) is the sponsor of H.441, a bill that would require the Department of Corrections to "offer to register prisoners to vote and inform [them] of their right to vote while in prison and after release." Zuckerman says of Lorber, "He's really dedicated to trying to improve our corrections system, both [by making] it more efficient from a cost perspective, but also trying to look at 'Who's in our prisons?', 'Why are they there?' and 'Are there ways to reduce the number of prisoners we have by either preventing crime in the first place, or helping [former inmates] become better citizens, so they don't go back in?'"
As for "Correcting Corrections," Zuckerman suggests, "I think it's important to get topics like this out to the public." But he admits, "I don't have cable, so I don't get channel 17."
Lorber acknowledges that his show isn't designed to be a "blockbuster" but simply "an effort to make people aware of the problems we have in Corrections." He adds, "It's important to get the message out."