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Jim Kenyon: Young Man’s Future Is in Prosecutor’s Hands

It s only been two months since his release from prison, but 22-year-old Sam Ramsey already has found a job, signed up for community college classes and started the mental health counseling he never received during his 3 years behind bars in Vermont. Ramsey s reward for getting his life on track? Orleans County State s Attorney Jennifer Barrett wants him back in prison.

Last June, while Ramsey was still incarcerated at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, he was charged with assault with bodily fluids on a correctional officer. The fluid: saliva. (More on that in a bit.)

The misdemeanor carries a maximum two-year prison sentence and a $1,000 fine. Court records indicate that Barrett offered Ramsey a deal: Plead guilty and he d only be locked up for 11 to 12 months. Some deal. Apparently, Barrett would rather Vermont taxpayers spend money the annual per capita cost for keeping an offender locked up in the state is $62,000 than help Ramsey become a productive tax-paying citizen.

I ve written a lot about Ramsey over the years. He was 5 when I met him in the summer of 2000 while working on a series about working-class poverty in the Upper Valley. He was living in a Hartford campground with his mother and two older brothers. A few years ago, I reconnected with Kerrie Ramsey, who told me about her son s struggle with psychiatric illness and his incarceration at age 18 for an assault that occurred two years earlier at a juvenile facility. In prison, Ramsey earned a high school degree and graduated from a workforce readiness program that teaches valuable technology skills.

But Ramsey also had some hiccups along the way, including a verbal dispute with a correctional officer over a book that included a picture of a gun, which was against prison rules. Never mind that the book part of a role-playing fantasy game, much like Dungeons and Dragons had passed muster with prison security. After Ramsey didn t comply with a guard s order to get back into his cell, another guard blasted him with pepper spray and he was handcuffed. Before being sent off to solitary confinement for a lengthy stay, Ramsey then allegedly spit at a guard, hitting him in the eye. Ramsey, who suffers from asthma, said it was unintentional. He was reacting to the pepper spray in his mouth, nose and eyes. Being in handcuffs, he couldn t wipe his face.

The prison is supposed to videotape use-of-force encounters. But that didn t happen in this case the battery in a hand-held camera was dead, a Department of Corrections official told me. Barrett, a Republican who was elected in 2014, still charged him. Ramsey s mother paid a bail bondsman, which allowed him to leave prison after completing his original sentence in February. He s now living with his mother and her longtime partner, Jim Bennett, a mail carrier, in Windsor. With her son eligible for Medicaid, Kerrie Ramsey wasted little time finding him a mental health counselor at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, who he now sees every other week.

Shortly after coming home, Ramsey started applying for jobs. He landed an interview at a fast-food restaurant in West Lebanon, where a manager asked about his previous work experience.

I have none, Ramsey replied. I ll be honest. I just got out of jail for a simple assault when I was 16. Ramsey later told me he could pretty much tell the interview was over at that point. But that didn t stop him from applying at McDonald s in White River Junction. After hearing Ramsey s story, the manager gave him a chance.

He s worked at the restaurant for a month, putting in close to 40 hours a week. He earns $10 an hour, making sandwiches and flipping burgers.

In jail, I mostly watched TV and played cards, he said. I m getting used to being busy. Everything moves so quickly out here. Ramsey doesn t have a driver s license, so he depends on his mother for rides. She doesn t mind it beats driving two hours to Newport on Sunday mornings for weekly prison visits, where she couldn t even give her son a hug. When the public defender representing him in the spitting case left for another job, Kerrie Ramsey scraped together enough money to hire Bill Cobb, a private attorney in St. Johnsbury. Ramsey is repaying his mother $50 or so a week from his paycheck.

I want to pay her back as soon as I can, he said. She s done enough already.

The case is scheduled for jury selection next week. Cobb is still hoping to reach a plea deal that would call for Ramsey to pay a fine, but avoid more prison time or probation.

Having him sitting in a jail cell is not going to be helpful, Cobb told me. He won t be getting any mental health therapy there. Ramsey is supposed to start three classes at Community College of Vermont in Wilder next month. It could be Ramsey s springboard to Lyndon State College, where he has his sights on earning a four-year degree in business administration. But it s hard to stay focused. I can t plan ahead with this court stuff going on, he said. I just want it over with.

Prosecutors have immense power. Barrett could easily drop the case and give Ramsey a chance to get on with his life. I called her office on Monday. She was too busy to talk with me, I was politely told. Let s hope she s not too busy to see the benefits of giving a young man an opportunity to work, start college and get counseling over sending him back to prison.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at [email protected]

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