The future of Vermont prisons has reached a turning point.
As Vermont’s Department of Corrections seeks to modernize the state’s prisons, activist groups see a pivotal moment, questioning the need to expand the prison system as the number of prisoners trends downward.
Last week, the ACLU, the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and the Women’s Justice and Freedom Initiative issued a joint statement condemning a report outlining options for renovating and expanding the state’s prison system. The report, by the architecture firm HOK Group, assumes that the state will imprison at least 500 more people than the current population and about 100 more people than were incarcerated prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the groups opposing expansion point out that the state recently reached a historically low prison population of 1,227.
Jenney Samuelson, deputy secretary at the Agency of Human Services, said at the governor’s press conference April 20 that modernization was the goal and indicated that the state would not be seeking to grow the number of prison beds despite the numbers proposed in the HOK Group report.
“The modernization of the facilities is the focus of the effort to to build new facilities, the number of spaces is not something that that we are looking to actually increase, but to bring our facilities into a place where they would provide the best services to the individuals that we are serving in our correctional facilities,” she said. “Modernization is really important, particularly in our women’s prison in Chittenden.”
The contractor recommended shuttering the deterioriating Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility and replacing it with a new women’s prison.
“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,” Falko Schilling, ACLU of Vermont advocacy director, said in a statement. “We must continue to move toward a system that 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.”
Gov. Phil Scott said that while the state can continue to debate the size of the prison infrastructure, “I hope we could all agree that we’re going to still need a modern facility for the offender population, because I don’t think that goes away.”
In a statement, Attorney General T.J. Donovan said, “I oppose expanding the Vermont prison system and building new prisons. Vermont needs community-oriented public health strategies. Public safety is protected most effectively, and with the least cost to Vermonters, when we address the underlying needs of our community members.”
One option in the HOK report, which Interim Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker said he favored, according to VTDigger, would cost $252 million. It would involve the closing of the South Burlington women’s prison in order to build a new 144-bed women’s prison and a new 50-bed reentry facility. The plan would also replace the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland with a 600-bed prison for men and a 100-bed reentry facility to bed. It also calls for the enlargement of the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield to 521 beds.
‘A critical juncture’
The Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence’s condemnation of a prison expansion comes just weeks after their report attempting to quantify the economic impact of domestic and sexual violence found a huge disparity in the amount the state spent on prisons — approximately $58 million — and victim services, $12 million.
The organization’s executive director, Karen Tronsgard-Scott, said money would be better spent on less expensive and more efficient forms of crime and violence prevention than an expansion of prisons.
“By the time somebody is adjudicated and incarcerated, we’ve missed all kinds of opportunities to prevent violence,” she said. “If we reduce the number of people we incarcerate by investing further up the stream on prevention and other kinds of other kinds of interventions, then our state can save a lot of money, because incarceration is one of the most expensive things that we do.”
To her, the proposal was confounding and in direct contradiction of work the Legislature has been considering. Even Republican Sen. Joe Benning of Caledonia County, the chair of the Senate Committee on Institutions, said he was hearing loud calls for and personally supported focusing on the women’s prison — widely considered the most pressing issue in need of reform — and consulting the Department of Corrections before overhauling the entire prison system.
“It almost feels as if one hand doesn’t know what the other hands do,” Tronsgard-Scott said. “We’ve got part of our Legislature working on multiple reforms that will reduce the number of beds that we need in our state and then this other part of our Legislature that’s proposing significantly more beds.”
Tronsgard-Scott said that Vermont was at a crossroads where the state could think creatively about how to reimagine the criminal justice system and invest in tools and programs outside of imprisonment that are proven to prevent crime and reduce recidivism.
“We’re at this really critical juncture here,” she said. “If the state government chooses to expand prison beds, it will be a couple generations before we can revisit this, because we will spend the next decade if not more building new prisons and then we will spend time filling them because as many beds as we build, we will fill. It's just a really, incredibly important moment.”
All against the women’s prison
Among most members of the Vermont state government, there’s unanimous sentiment from everyone from Deputy Secretary Samuelson to Benning to Tonsgard-Scott that the severe issues with the South Burlington women’s prison need to be addressed.
The discussion prompted by the HOK report is just one more step in how, not if, to end the prison’s use. The prison has faced numerous reports of unsanitary conditions, too many instances of abuse and inadequate facilities.
“I have been very much concerned about the women's prison for many years,” said Sen. Ginny Lyons, a Democrat from Chittenden County and, until recently, a member of the Committee on Institutions. “But why would we expand when our goal has been to continue to decrease those who are incarcerated? So I think there’s an absolute legitimate concern about that.We know that the biggest need we have right now is for a woman’'s facility that has programming to help women move from incarceration back into the community.”
Lyons said that what she’s looking for most in planning for the future of prisons in Vermont is a facility that can provide programming, education and allow mothers to be with their children and family.
“The more I’ve learned about who was incarcerated, the more strongly I feel that we should be looking at a different model, and I think, in particular, for the women who are currently incarcerated,” she said.
The number of women imprisoned decreased quite a bit during the pandemic. According to Tronsgard-Scott, the number of women in the South Burlington facility was cut in half between April and May 2020, proving to her that the state was perfectly able to operate with fewer prisons with less capacity. She also believes that reforms will make many of the remaining prisoners eligible for leniency and prompt other changes in the housing system.
“People in prisons are daughters and sons, fathers and mothers,” she said. And every time we pull them out of the community, we are disrupting; there’s a ripple effect, we disrupt all kinds of situations. We have the opportunity at this very moment in Vermont, because there’s the political will and the vision to really change our relationship to how we incarcerate how we think about incarceration.”