Schubart: A new Vermont prison, build it and they will come?

by Bill Schubart As a community, we need to make cost-efficient, long-term, and morally responsible decisions.

Are we a punitive state or a supportive community that enables healing and shared prosperity? Do we invest in people and communities or jails, homeless shelters, and emergency rooms?

The women’s prison (CRCF) is filthy, inhumane, and unsafe, and should be closed. No one disagrees with this, but what do we replace it with?

As four corrections commissioners have reminded me (Con Hogan, Jim Baker, Lisa Menard, and current Commissioner Nick Deml), the VT Department of Corrections (DOC) does not put people in jails. Our laws ̶ made by the legislature), police, prosecutors, and judges do. Corrections is the innkeeper, charged with keeping detainees secure and the public safe, and hopefully ensuring timely and successful prisoner re-entry.

The current $70M plan afloat in the legislature to close and replace the women’s prison in South Burlington will be a telling indicator of who we are as a society. As with all prisoners, the 106 women currently incarcerated need a safe and secure shelter, as well as a supportive, redemptive path to re-entry.

The DOC is asking for two distinct facilities:

  • a therapeutic detention facility with natural light, hygienic facilities, and significant counseling and support services,
  • a re-entry facility where women can come and go at will to access job-training, counseling, and community-support services, meet with their families, care for their children, and exercise at will.

The precise plan for these two facilities is in development and is getting input from community reform advocates.

To Vermont’s credit over the last fourteen years, we’ve led the nation managing a 40% reduction in our total prison population thanks in part to the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

As of March 1, there were 106 women under the supervision of the Department of Corrections (DOC), 59 post-sentenced and incarcerated and 47 pre-sentence detainees and  ̶ by several subjective analyses  ̶ just 12 of whom have a history of violent behavior. There are 1349 incarcerated males of whom 124 are housed in Mississippi. Also, given the current court backlog, some 400 un-convicted detainees of both genders wait in jail for a trial date.

Gov. Scott’s request for $15.5M over the next two budget cycles for prison planning and construction reflects a real need to house women safely and focus on their successful re-entry. The total cost to build such a facility is projected to be $71.5M, though according to the administration’s own figures that cost could easily double.

Not unlike the crescendo of support among Vermonters for community-based primary-care health centers that focus on early diagnosis, education, prevention, trauma-informed counseling, and strengthening community and family support systems rather than continuing to spend millions shoring up an expansive network of financially struggling hospitals, there’s also broad support among Vermonters for investing in community-based support systems that keep their neighbors out of prison or, if they offend, that offer a redemptive path for them to return to their families, communities and economic opportunities.

As of 2020, “the average annual proportion of admissions to sentenced incarceration that were persons returning or being revoked from furlough, parole, and probation was 78%.” A significant number of those behind bars were detained for technical violations rather than a criminal offense. By way of example, a single mom caring for a sick child who chose not to take the bus to White River to meet with her parole officer was thus subject to reincarceration. But the number of women detained for technical violations has been radically reduced by the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

Most Vermonters want a more effective criminal justice system, one that reduces the use of jails and focuses on causation, prevention, and community supports. And thanks to the Vermont ACLU’s Smart Justice Campaign we are seeing significant progress.

In 17 Vermont communities, Vermonters have committed their own time and resources to Community Restorative Justice Centers (CJCs) as an effective alternative to jail time. These CJCs play a critical role in successful offender re-entry into families, their communities, and the economy. They include victim-support services and offender-support services related to employment, housing, mentoring, social life and reparation for the harm caused by their offense. Through reparative panel programs offenders meet their victims, ask forgiveness, and explore together how they can make up for the harm they’ve caused.

Many years back when Con Hogan was Commissioner of Corrections, and I chaired the Vermont Business Roundtable, Con wanted business leaders to have a better understanding of corrections and incarceration. We invited some Roundtable members to dine with inmates at the CRCF, then a men’s prison. Each of us sat interspersed with detainees on either side. It was a powerful learning experience, not only about prison life and culture, but more important, that we were among human beings who had made mistakes in their lives … as had we.

For me, it was a profound lesson in human nature. I knew people who’d been jailed, and the two I knew didn’t seem like bad people at all. Like so many young men, they’d made impulsive and dangerous choices which they regretted as they matured. It’s generally understood in human development theory that males usually mature physically, emotionally, and intellectually later than females. It’s also a known fact in criminal justice study that recidivism rates diminish substantially for men as they age.

As I wrote in the fall of 2020 when considering the future of the VT State College system, I proposed that the vacant dorms at Lyndon College might provide an ideal pathway to re-entry for nonviolent offenders. Developing an advanced curriculum in criminal justice, policing, restorative justice, and corrections careers and reform, education at Lyndon could become a productive pathway to re-entry for offenders. Imagine some dorms re-purposed for nonviolent female offenders and their children where they might have shared childcare and attend classes with matriculated students as they do at Bard College and Roger Williams University. The culture of higher ed is changing. Today’s learners want engagement and experiential learning. The old pedagogy of text assignments, lecture attendance, note-taking and exams has lost its relevance for a new generation of learners.

Nationally, rehabilitation has taken a backseat to the “get tough on crime” sector, even as the American Psychological Association shows that the lion’s share of crime devolves from expanding poverty, untreated mental illness, and substance abuse disorder. Vermont has taken significant steps to address these, but we and much of the nation seem either clueless or unwilling to advance and fund policies that alleviate poverty and hunger and expand treatment options for mental illnesses or those addicted to alcohol, street, or pharmaceutical drugs.

Meanwhile, Vermont’s hunger, homelessness, and poverty rates are slowly rising. So too has the reported incidence of young people suffering from mental health issues. Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Lynn Cota testified February 9th before the House Committee on Education that children’s mental health in our schools is “dangerously close to a breaking point.”

A new collaboration between the Department of Corrections (DOC), the Department of Mental Health (DMH), and Pathways Vermont offers science-based treatment for individuals involved in the criminal justice system. The methodology, Forensic Assertive Community Treatment (FACT), is recognized by the federal Substance Abuse Mental Health and Services Administration (SAMHSA) as having shown success in treating individuals with mental health and/or substance use challenges, and who are considered at risk of re-offending.

Instead of building human storage cells, we might:

  • expand our capacity to treat mental illness and multiple forms of addiction  ̶ like sports betting.
  • explore how to use our vacant state college dorms as a co-housing and educational opportunity.
  • partner with businesses trying to hire trade and tech people to train and create internships for those serving time for property crimes. This would create opportunities for self-support with a livable wage  ̶ as opposed to the $.25 and $1.35 an hour that incarcerated prisoners are paid for their work in prison.
  • eliminate cash bail which benefits only those who can afford loan sharks. A sizable portion of new incarcerations are those detained pre-trial as they cannot afford cash bail and are thus jailed awaiting conviction. New Jersey did successfully,
  • expand compassionate release guidelines for those who are dying, have been incarcerated for more than a decade, or those over 45 years old,
  • eliminate the private networks that profiteer on communication between prisoners, their families, and support services. I can phone anywhere in the world and talk on video for an hour at no charge. Why can’t those in jail who depend on their families for love and support?

We must make a moral decision. Is our goal Dickensian, eye-for-an-eye Old Testament punishment or opening a redemptive path back into our communities?

It’s also a practical decision. According to the U.S. Dept of Justice, prisons don’t deter crime. Yet, on a per capita basis, the U.S. incarcerates more people (2M) than most of the world, including Russia and China, on a population-adjusted basis, and yet we still experience crime.

The administration and the Legislature should focus on how our complex systems are all linked. The endgames of our failures are emergency departments, homeless shelters, and prisons.

Our present prisons are monuments to our failures as a society.

Bill Schubart is a writer and author from Hinesburg. This piece first appeared in