When Gov. Peter Shumlin declared “war on recidivism” last month, his opening salvo was a sort of prisoner switcheroo. By moving Vermont’s female prisoners from Swanton to South Burlington — and filling empty prison beds around Vermont with male prisoners presently incarcerated out of state — Vermont could save $2 million a year and improve living conditions for women inmates, the governor said.
“We will create a parent-child visiting space for these parents and their children,” Shumlin said during his January 25 budget address. “This will not only help mothers bond with their children; it will also help them learn better parenting skills for when … they are reunited with their families.”
In order to bank the savings in the fiscal year starting July 1, the Shumlin administration wants to move the prisoners this summer. That ambitious time frame is causing friction with some prisoner advocates and nonprofit service providers who worry the transition will interrupt job- and substance-abuse programs that prisoners depend on.
“I don’t think we could put things in place in that kind of a time frame in a way so that we’re really ready to go when the women get there,” says Tiff Bluemle, executive director of Vermont Works for Women. The nonprofit runs a successful program that trains 20 women inmates a year as carpenters building modular homes.
In fact, Bluemle’s program might remain in Swanton and become a men’s project, says Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito. “I know we’re pushing people to think creatively on these things,” Pallito says, “but we’re in unprecedented economic times.”
Women incarcerated at Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton get most of their needs met in-house. They work a range of jobs in the prison, from building modular homes and groundskeeping to running print and auto shops. In addition, Phoenix House runs a residential substance-abuse treatment program there staffed by five caseworkers, and the Community High School of Vermont has classrooms and a computer lab there.
The Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, which largely houses men awaiting court appearances, has almost no room for such programs. The Department of Corrections plans to contract local nonprofits to provide those services. Pallito says the administration is still working out how the inmates will be affected. He admits the transition might leave them without jobs and services for a few months.
“I don’t think you want there to be a big time lag between the time the women actually arrive and the time the programming is ready for them,” Bluemle advises. “Keeping busy, for many women, and doing something that is productive, is often what keeps them sane and feeling hopeful. It gives them a purpose, a reason to get up every day.”
For Shumlin, the prison proposal fulfills a campaign promise to tackle the skyrocketing cost of corrections and fund community-based programs aimed at breaking the cycle of reoffending. He is asking the legislature for $1 million more for prevention and alternative-justice programs and has pledged $300,000 to “unlock” waiting lists for methadone treatment.
At present, the Swanton prison has 60 unoccupied beds. The DOC plans to fill 20 of those with male prisoners incarcerated in Massachusetts and Kentucky and lease the other 40 to the U.S. Marshals Service at a rate of $137 per bed, per day. The DOC now pays about $25,000 per inmate per year for the 554 prisoners incarcerated outside Vermont. Bringing them back saves the DOC money because the prison requires the same staffing levels no matter how many inmates are there, says DOC finance director Ira Sollace.
The Shumlin administration has other justifications for relocating the women. Roughly a third of Vermont’s 157 female inmates are from Chittenden County, and the theory is that moving them closer would help them reestablish community ties.
If the legislature approves the move to South Burlington, the DOC plans to replace in-house prison jobs with work-release jobs where inmates are employed in the community, Pallito says. Two-thirds of the women are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. Pallito says that makes them more employable.
Wendy Love, executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women, isn’t so sure. “If you have any money-related offenses, you’ll never get a job,” Love says, adding that the commission hasn’t taken a formal stance on the governor’s plan. “A good number of women are in prison for things like shoplifting or passing bad checks, usually to support drug habits.”
In recent weeks, Love has received letters from female inmates who are worried about the move. One of them, Sarah Parker, complains that inmates have had “absolutely no voice” in the matter.
“Despite what was said on the news, Gov. Shumlin did not come to our facility to tell us that we were moving to South Burlington,” Parker wrote. “He never mentioned that once when he was face to face with us.”
Love also questions whether community-based nonprofits have the capacity to absorb prisoners into their programs and whether new jail-diversion facilities will provoke a negative reaction.
The prison buildings themselves pose another problem. Combined, they need $1.6 million in upgrades to be fully functional. That would involve renovating bathrooms to accomodate the new populations — reversing a costly bathroom conversion when the Swanton prison was switched from men’s to women’s.
In 2007, a DOC report described the 35-year-old Chittenden Regional prison as “barely functional from a correctional perspective.” The report’s authors noted the prison suffered from sewage backups in shower drains, outdated security cameras, “inadequate” medical and mental-health treatment space, and limited work and program space. The garage was too small to accommodate prisoner transport vans, a situation that allowed one prisoner to escape in 2006, according to the report.
Pallito says the DOC has done some renovations in the four years since. “It’s still not a perfect building, but it’s a correctional facility, after all. We defer maintenance sometimes when the budget gets tough. There’s more work to do.”
Even with this move, Pallito says the female prison population will outgrow Chittenden Regional in just a few years unless more nonviolent female offenders are diverted from jail.
“Unless we get serious as a state around our nonviolent issue, we’re going to be moving the women again,” Pallito says. “We’ll be in the same situation we are with the men, where we’re sending people out of state.”