[T]he Department of Corrections terminated a contract for educational and employment-training services between Vermont Works for Women and the state’s only women’s prison this week.
The DOC notified the Winooski-based organization by email Tuesday that it will cancel the $159,000 contract, under which Vermont Works for Women provides four educational programs to the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility.
Rachel Jolly of Vermont Works for Women said the news came as a “big surprise” to the organization, which has run programs for Vermont’s incarcerated women for 14 years.
The organization has followed the state’s women’s facility as it has moved to different locations around the state four times in the past decade.
DOC Commissioner Andy Pallito said the decision to cut the contract with Vermont Works for Women came as a result of cuts to the budget for the state’s primary prison education program.
The Legislature axed the Shumlin administration’s original proposal to cut $1.7 million from the Community High School of Vermont, ultimately restoring funding to the statewide educational program that helps inmates under age 23 get their high school degree, along with providing a number of other vocational programs.
However, the final state budget contained a smaller, though still significant, cut to prison education funding.
Lawmakers directed the DOC to fill the $250,000 shortfall in the Community High School’s budget by canceling external contracts for educational programs that could be taught through the school.
The contract with Vermont Works for Women was cut because the Community High School provides similar services in other correctional facilities, Pallito said.
“This budget was full of tough choices and the [Vermont Works for Women] contract was one of them,” Pallito said in an email Wednesday.
Jolly, the director of women’s programs at Vermont Works for Women, said Community High School will not be able to fully replicate the organization’s work in the South Burlington prison facility.
Four programs run by Vermont Works for Women will be impacted by the cut, including a computer training class and an inmate worker program that mimics human resources functions — so prisoners gain experience with resumes, job applications and more.
Jolly said that Vermont Works for Women brings a special set of skills to working with the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility.
“The contractors that are there currently, including us, are there because we bring particular expertise when working with women, especially this population of women,” Jolly said.
The programs that Vermont Works for Women runs are tailored to take into consideration the emotional trauma that is commonly in the background of incarcerated women.
“Trust has been broken again and again and again in these women’s lives,” Jolly said. The organization’s longstanding relationship with the facility provides important stability, she said.
Ashlie Tucker, a graduate of Vermont Works for Women’s prison programming, said the employment training program helps incarcerated women prepare to re-enter society with new skills and experiences.
“When us women inmates go into jail, a lot of us, the only experience we have making money is, as bad as it sounds, selling drugs or doing illegal things,” Tucker said, noting that the program provides support for learning to write a resume and other job-seeking skills.
The 25-year-old Burlington resident has been out of prison for about a year and a half now, and is working at a bike shop — a job that Vermont Works for Women helped her find. She said that the training course was very influential for her in part because the support system in prison was continuous with the services available through the organization after she was released.
“In order for us to be productive members of society we need to have that connection between the inside and the outside,” Tucker said.
Wilhelmina Picard, director of corrections education with the DOC, said in an email statement that the department is committed to providing equal educational opportunities to incarcerated men and women.
The department will assign one more educational officer to the Chittenden prison in order to meet the workforce development needs of the female population there, she said.
The contract with Vermont Works for Women is the only one that has been cut, according to Pallito. However, because the DOC will need to reduce contracts by an additional $90,000, other cuts are expected.
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