On April 21, 2021

Prison proposals would close women’s facility, but expand corrections capacity in Vermont

By Xander Landen/VTDigger

A consulting firm hired to examine Vermont’s corrections system has proposed five plans for redesigning it in the coming years — all of which involve closing the state’s only prison for women.

The proposals, presented to legislators Tuesday, April 13, would increase the number of beds in the state’s prison system to more than 2,000. It now has just under 1,800 beds, though the use of about 400 is restricted.

The contractor, HOK Group, recommended shutting down the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility and replacing it with a new women’s prison. The aging complex is deteriorating and has been criticized for unsanitary conditions. Lawmakers have already started planning to replace the South Burlington facility.

Several of the firm’s proposals recommend closing down multiple prisons and building new ones — and one recommends replacing all of the state’s existing facilities with a single complex.

Interim Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker told legislators Tuesday that he realized there would be “a lot of pushback about building new jails,” but he said that Vermont’s prison system “is not built for the programming or the environment we need to rehabilitate.”

Baker said he was not expecting lawmakers to settle on a path forward for the entire prison system this year. “The priority,” he said, was to replace the women’s prison. Baker’s department is seeking $1.5 million to plan for a new facility.

That funding, which Gov. Phil Scott included in his capital bill proposal, would also help the state take “the next steps” toward determining how a comprehensive redesign of the system would look, Baker said.

“I know it’s gonna be a hard sell, but let’s not lose the target of the next two years of capital money, really digging into what do we want our correctional system to look like 20 years from now,” Baker told lawmakers.

The department has not formally endorsed any of HOK’s proposals, but Baker said the best among them is “Option C.” That $252 million plan would close the women’s prison and the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland. It would also create a 600-bed prison for men, a 144-bed facility for women and two “reentry facilities” for those nearing release. In addition, the proposal would enlarge the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield to include 521 beds.

Another option involves closing all of the state’s prisons and replacing them with a single complex. It would incorporate a new prison for men that could hold 1,752 people, a new 144-bed prison for women and two reentry facilities. Construction costs would total an estimated $330 million.

Some legislators raised concerns about HOK’s plans because they would all add beds to the state’s prison system at a time in which legislators have been attempting to reform it and reduce the state’s incarcerated population.

Changes to the justice system brought on by the pandemic have also led to the lowest prison population in years. Last week, 1,234 people were incarcerated in Vermont’s prisons, according to the department — down by about 500 from two years ago.

In a statement issued Wednesday, the ACLU of Vermont said that HOK’s proposals disregarded “years of hard work across our system that safely reduced the prison population by hundreds of people.”

Falko Schilling, a lobbyist for the group, wrote, “It is baffling that this proposal envisions locking up 500 more people without justification when all the trends are in the opposite direction and the evidence is clear that we can and should imprison fewer Vermonters.”

Speaking to lawmakers on Tuesday, Al Cormier, the corrections department’s facilities executive, said HOK’s proposals contemplated a 15% vacancy rate. Under the current system, the department has sent prisoners out of state during construction projects because there was not enough room for them in other Vermont prisons, he said.

At present, about 200 Vermonters are serving time at a private prison in Mississippi.

HOK director Jeff Goodale said the firm’s recommendations would increase the prison system’s capacity so that all incarcerated Vermonters could be housed in Vermont.

Goodale said the proposals would provide “additional beds without anticipating additional people,” and that the American Correctional Association recommends corrections systems maintain empty beds.

In general, HOK found that Vermont’s facilities were not in step with regulations and requirements set forth by that association, nor with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

“All of the facilities are in need of upgrade just for those areas to get back to standards,” Goodale said.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, chair of the Senate Committee on Institutions, said legislators should focus on replacing the women’s prison, rather than changing the entire prison system.

“On the Senate side, I’ve got people very loud and very concerned that we not get so bogged down in the overall details of the entire system,” he said. “Let’s take a first step would be my recommendation. Let’s concentrate on building a women’s facility.”

Benning said he would like to ask the corrections department for the “core number” of beds it believes are needed to house incarcerated women and “start the investigation” for a location for a new women’s prison.

But Jennifer Fitch, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services, said lawmakers could not plan “independently for one piece” of the corrections system “without considering all the other components in the system.”

“Because then what that does is it gets us into trouble because as we focus on one group, what does that mean and what is the impact on all the other groups?” Fitch said.

Before the state attempts to site a new women’s prison, it should determine the “planning and programming” for the facility, she said. “I tell you, do not look for land before you know what the requirements are for your facility because then we’re going to get ourselves tripped up, right? It all has to go in a certain order.”

In response to the recommendations, criminal justice advocates voiced strong opposition to any prison expansion. The ACLU of Vermont, the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, and the Women’s Justice and Freedom Initiative specifically raised concerns about the proposals and instead called on decision makers to continue pursuing community-based alternatives to incarceration and other tools to safely reduce Vermont’s prison population.

In March, Vermont’s prison population reached a historic low of 1,227 Vermonters, the lowest point in more than two decades, representing a 30% reduction in just two years and a 45% reduction overall. This trend, which began well before the pandemic, is a direct result of the Legislature’s sustained commitment to creating a “smarter criminal justice system.”

Criminal justice advocates say the HOK report ignores that progress and does not consider any alternative strategies to further reduce the prison population by investing in community-based alternatives to incarceration. Further, it disregards recently enacted reforms such as Justice Reinvestment and practices employed during the pandemic that drastically reduced Vermont’s reliance on prisons. If enacted, this proposal also threatens anticipated savings that would be invested in essential supports and services, the advocates stated in a press release Wednesday, April 14.

“Now is not the time to move backwards with criminal justice reform in Vermont. This proposal disregards years of hard work across our system that safely reduced the prison population by hundreds of people,” said Schilling said. “We must continue to move towards a system makes incarceration a last resort, respects the humanity of the people involved in the criminal legal system, and stops wasting taxpayer money to put more people in cages that don’t need to be there.”

Women’s Justice and Freedom Initiative Executive Director Ashley Messier added, “The HOK report never examines the opportunities to invest in community-based alternatives to incarceration. One thing is simple, if we build new beds, they will absolutely be filled. This continued conversation about new prison construction in Vermont is out of touch with the work that is being done on the ground by service providers and in national context with decarceration trends and treatment services. Building bigger prisons, even here in Vermont, will only continue to accelerate mass incarceration. If our legislature continues to propose to study all of the options, why are they continuing to intentionally leave studying community-based services and alternatives out of the conversation?”

Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence Executive Director Karen Tronsgard-Scott said, “We agree with the legislature that the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility needs repair or replacement – and that the building stands in the way of meaningful rehabilitation and support for Vermont’s incarcerated women. We believe that any new women’s facility should be smaller and better tailored to the unique needs of incarcerated women. While the Legislature is considering allocating hundreds of thousands of dollars to planning for new buildings, community-based programs continue to be underfunded. The Justice Reinvestment Initiative demonstrated that Vermont can reduce the number of individuals we incarcerate if we invest in the right community-based supports. If we invest in community-based programs, we could have a significant and positive impact on community safety and the number of people we incarcerate. If Justice Reinvestment has taught us anything, it is that we need to invite stakeholders to the table for these conversations. As the Legislature moves forward, we will need all voices to help shape the solution.”

These key members and their organizations, along with many Vermonters, call on the Legislature to reject efforts to move forward with prison construction (such as outlined in the HOK report) without fully examining how we can continue safely reducing our state prison population by implementing proven policy solutions and investing in community-based alternatives.

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