State to change, expand its use of St. Johnsbury work camp

Inside the ward of the St. Johnsbury work camp, which will soon house a new population of inmates. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

Inside the ward of the St. Johnsbury work camp, which will soon house a new population of inmates. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

ST. JOHNSBURY — After months of negotiations, St. Johnsbury and the Department of Corrections have reached an agreement to allow an unused part of a correctional facility to reopen.

One of two dormitory wings at a work camp at the Northeast Correctional Complex has been shuttered since October 2015 because of a decline in the number of inmates who qualify for the program.

The agreement will allow the north wing to be used for 50 minimum-security inmates who are not in the work camp program. Inmates could be arriving to fill the wing next week, according to prison staff.

“We do not have significant numbers of empty general population beds, so this does allow us to move our population around a bit and create some room in other facilities,” Corrections Commissioner Lisa Menard said.

And if the Legislature moves forward with a proposal in Gov. Phil Scott’s budget to close a prison facility in Windsor, the new agreement in St. Johnsbury can reduce the number of inmates who will be sent to an out-of-state facility, Menard said.

The decline in work camp participation, according to Northeast Correctional Complex Superintendent Alan Cormier, is due to changes in the demographics of incarceration that have accompanied the push to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison. The complex includes the work camp as well as a separate prison.

After the one wing closed, Gov. Peter Shumlin proposed closing the work camp in the fiscal year 2017 budget. However, lawmakers salvaged the facility, instead inserting an option that would require the Corrections Department to renegotiate with the town to allow people who are not eligible for the work camp to stay in that facility.

Talks with St. Johnsbury began last summer but moved slowly.

Lisa Menard

Lisa Menard, commissioner of the Department of Corrections. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

The change in the agreement between the state and the town specifically targets a population that poses an ongoing challenge: people who have completed their minimum sentence and are eligible to be released, except that they do not have approved housing on the outside. In recent months, the number of inmates who fall into this category has ranged from 150 to 170, according to Menard.

In addition to having completed their minimum sentence, the new inmates at the work camp must be classified as minimum security, according to Menard. People serving time for a sex offense will be permitted at the facility only if they are from Caledonia County.

Town welcomes the arrangement

St. Johnsbury Town Manager Chad Whitehead said the town is happy with the agreement.

Whitehead said there was some concern from residents because of a belief that problems within the town are related to the presence of the facility nearby. “It’s not linked to it, but that’s the perception,” Whitehead said.

There is a perception when somebody is up for release that “they just open the doors and people walk out and they end up on the front steps of our welcome center,” Whitehead said, adding that is not the case.

Under the agreement, only inmates who are from Caledonia County will be released directly from the St. Johnsbury facility. Those who are from other parts of the state will be transferred to other facilities closer to home before being released. According to Menard, this is current practice, but the agreement formalizes it.

Whitehead said he doesn’t expect the change in the population at the work camp to have a noticeable effect on the town.

Under the agreement, the state increased an annual payment to the town to support municipal services the work camp uses, including fire and rescue response, to $50,000, from $20,000.

The Legislature last year also authorized a $1 million grant to the St. Johnsbury region through the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. Whitehead said there are no plans for the money yet but that the town is going through a housing evaluation and there are some key properties that could be used for housing.

Preparing for “cultural adjustment”

Inside the work camp, staff are preparing for the change.

“It’ll be a cultural adjustment,” said Cormier, the superintendent.

The work camp building is unique among Vermont’s prison facilities. Many general population units are composed of many cells, typically shared by roommates, grouped around a common area. Currently at the work camp, 56 inmates stay in a single large room, each assigned a bunk and a locker.

The facility is minimum security: The only locked door is the one leading outside. Inmates can move around within the facility among the dorm building, a wide courtyard with an outdoor gym and basketball court, and a large multipurpose space that includes a library and the cafeteria. The dining area is marked by a carved sign reading “Blaine’s Café” — a tribute to a late former employee.

Work camp crews go out into the community around St. Johnsbury and beyond to do projects ranging from repainting the local police station to mowing a cemetery in Montpelier.

They also do on-site work, including at a woodshop where they specialize in signs. According to Cormier, they make many of the wooden trail markers on Vermont hiking paths.

For every day they work, they shave one day off their sentence.

The new occupants at the facility will not be involved with the work camp activities, according to Cormier, but they will mingle somewhat with the work camp population. Cormier hopes the groups mix well but is prepared for some friction.

Though the newcomers won’t participate in off-site work, they will have access to programs to help them when they re-enter the community, such as courses on life skills, road construction and cooking on a limited budget, according to Cormier.

Elizabeth Hewitt

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