A reentry facility for incarcerated women in Maine could be a model for replacing the troubled Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, officials told state legislators Tuesday.
At a hearing of the Joint Justice Oversight Committee, several Department of Corrections officials praised the low-security design and life skills training available at the Windham, Maine-based Southern Maine Women's Reentry Center.
They said a number of corrections staff have visited the facility to see how it operates and watch the work of officers there.
Women at the Maine center are “treated with a level of dignity and respect and put in an environment of ownership for the program,” interim Corrections Commissioner James Baker said at the hearing.
“And what do we do here in Vermont?” he said. “We send them off to a facility that is an embarrassment.”
Chittenden Regional has for years been notorious for unsanitary conditions, with showers reportedly reeking of human waste and infested with sewer flies and maggots.
In April, a contractor, HOK Group, recommended shutting down the facility and replacing it with a new women’s prison. The company's proposals would also increase the number of beds in the state’s prison system to more than 2,000.
It now has just under 1,800 beds, though the use of about 400 is restricted.
Baker told legislators Tuesday his department has since “really re-thought” how it wants to house the roughly 100 women incarcerated at the South Burlington facility.
Early estimates show a secured facility to replace Chittenden Regional could cost about $80 million, Baker said. But many individuals who are held there do not have a history of violence, he said, and do not need to be in a high-security environment.
Bill Soule, the Department of Corrections community corrections district manager, said at the hearing there are 40 women currently incarcerated who would be eligible to use a new reentry facility.
He visited the Maine facility in July and was impressed by the education and vocational training opportunities, as well as substance abuse treatment, that were available.
“They have a whole menu of what I felt was really strong treatment,” Soule said, “with providers coming in from the community as well as staff.”
The interior of the facility was set up like a college dormitory, he said, with plenty of natural light and vegetable gardens outside.
“If you drove by the facility, you’d probably think it was a small school,” Soule said.
Another challenge of the South Burlington facility is that it’s a combination of a prison and a jail, so the population changes frequently, he said.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said it could be worthwhile to consider building a facility that is “purely for detention,” which would eliminate some of that turnover.
Cameras and records
Legislators also asked Department of Corrections leadership Tuesday about its progress on a body-worn camera policy for the state’s corrections officers.
The department has been reviewing policies written by other organizations, according to Christine Cowart, its senior policy and implementation analyst. Those policies include ones drafted by the Maine Department of Corrections and American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
“There’s very few corrections organizations that use body cams at this stage,” she said, “and the applications are very different.”
Cowart said the agency has a draft policy that is currently undergoing legal review.
Asked at the hearing when the policy could be finalized, she said it’s tough to say until the department has decided what type of camera they want to purchase.
The joint committee also discussed the prospect of making all crimes eligible for expungement — or complete erasure — except the most serious ones, such as murder, sexual assault, domestic assault and drug trafficking. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed and Gov. Phil Scott signed into law Act 58, which directed the joint committee to draft such a policy.
Currently, Vermont employs what’s known as a “two-track system” that allows for the sealing or expungement of criminal records based on the nature of the offense.
Committee members seemed to favor creating a “one-track system” instead, according to the panel’s chair, Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Windsor. That would provide for either sealing or expungement of all eligible offenses.
There still are more lingering questions about access to records, she said.
“Who has access?” Emmons asked. “And how does a person get to a sealed record? Is it through a petition or a different process?”
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