The Vermont Interfaith Action group pressed state corrections officials and lawmakers on Wednesday to improve conditions for women held at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, which has been rocked by sexual misconduct allegations in recent years.
A cultural change promised for Vermont’s only prison for women isn’t happening fast enough, members of the group said.
“As faith communities, we believe there is a moral imperative to change the culture of the Vermont Department of Corrections to a new paradigm,” Linda Wentworth said during a Zoom meeting at which the group called for reforms.
That new model would replace a damaging “power and control dynamic” with a “culture of wellness” similar to what's been created for women prisoners in Maine. That model embraces “measures to improve and maintain [their] physical, emotional and spiritual health," Wentworth said.
The group argued that more educational and vocational training programs are needed to help female inmates learn, grow and prepare for their eventual release. Some of these programs have been suspended due to COVID-19. They suggested female inmates generally pose very little danger to the community and are usually the victims of abuse, neglect, addiction and poverty.
Two women shared their experiences at the facility, including one who, in a written statement read by another meeting participant, said she spent three years there without ever having been convicted of a crime.
Another former inmate said there was a nine-month waiting list to get into a support group. Most people think that prisoners get treatment for their mental health and substance abuse problems, but that's not true, she said.
“The reality is they are making it worse. They are traumatizing us significantly,” the woman said.
The group argued for the establishment of a “step-down” facility that would be more like a college dorm than a prison, where residents could stay during the last nine months of their sentences and would be prepared to re-enter the world.
The Department of Corrections should better support the work of groups like Mercy Connections, Vermont Works for Women and Alcoholics Anonymous, speakers said. Group members were careful to note that many lawmakers and DOC leaders are supportive of these and other measures to improve the care of inmates.
But putting good ideas into effect "has simply not happened adequately,” Wentworth said.
The group sought commitments from officials to take a number of steps, including to fund a director of women and family services, a position that was cut in 2015. They also called for staff to be trained in “trauma-based and gender-informed methods of interaction.” They advocated for pre- and post-release support services.
The half dozen lawmakers who participated in the meeting all said they support the goals of the group, but most said they could not commit to spending the funds outside a budget context.
Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden) said he knew such qualified support makes a politician “sound like a horrible weasel.” But vowing to spend untold sums of public money would be irresponsible, he said .
“I’m with you in terms of doing what I can in good conscience promise right now,” he said.
Other lawmakers expressed fuller support for changes the group proposed. Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden) said she had seen reports that date back years about problems at Chittenden Regional Correction Facility similar to the ones outlined in a report last December.
That report, by law firm Downs Rachlin Martin, was commissioned in December 2019 after Seven Days published a series of stories describing allegations of sexual misconduct, drug use and retaliation at the prison.
“I have a level of frustration with the slowness of change for care of our incarcerated women,” Lyons said.
Interim DOC Commissioner James Baker said at least one of the suggestions — the hiring of the director of women and family services — was already under way. Baker also said corrections officers have received trauma and gender training for years. The problem, he said, was that “the curriculum has not been looked at for years.”
That is now being rectified. The Moss Group, a Washington, D.C.-based corrections consultancy that helped Downs Rachlin Martin with its report, is reviewing that training, Baker said.