Vermont’s Female Inmates Shouldn’t Expect Sanitary Facilities Anytime Soon

The good news: The Scott administration’s capital spending request includes money for a new women’s prison.

The bad news: It’s gonna take years for anything to actually happen.

The proposed capital bill would allocate $1.5 million over the next two fiscal years toward a replacement for the outdated and unsanitary Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, a.k.a. the state women’s prison. That money is nothing more than a down payment; the stated purpose is for “Planning and Design, Outside Consultants.”

That’s right, at least two years of planning lies ahead before anything concrete will be done.

As a reminder, the Seven Days expose that started all this was published more than a year ago, and included this lovely nugget:

Soon after women prisoners were moved to the South Burlington facility in 2011, a group of local nonprofits documented the presence of worms and drain flies in the showers, inadequate heating and cooling systems, and a dearth of toilets. In a report released last month, Vermont Interfaith Action described a “depressing, hopeless atmosphere” within the prison.

Everyone agrees that the women’s prison is kind of a hellhole, but the inmates will just have to be patient, won’t they?

After the jump: Work begins on legislation to address the DOC’s dysfunctional culture.

Meanwhile, work is underway on legislation to fix problems with staff/inmate relations, not the inadequate physical plant. On Tuesday morning, the House Corrections and Institutions Committee met with interim DOC Commissioner James Baker to discuss recommended changes in law and policy from the Downs Rachlin Martin report on the women’s prison. You know, the report that essentially verified the deeply troubling Seven Days article.

Baker presented a list of legislative wants, including:

  • Body cameras for corrections staff. Scott’s budget includes $1 million for the purpose.
  • Drug testing for all staff.
  • Establishing a certification/decertification process for corrections staff, along the lines of the process for law enforcement officers.
  • Creation of an investigative unit within DOC. Relevant police would still investigate crimes, but a DOC unit could examine cases for possible disciplinary action and policy changes.
  • Allowing DOC to conduct pre-employment polygraph tests.
  • Creating a “Corrections Advisory Committee” to provide “an outside eye on issues within the system.” Baker said this would add transparency to what’s currently an opaque process.
  • Change the law barring staff/inmate relationships. Currently, Baker said, it only applies to staff with direct supervisory duty. Baker would extend it to all DOC staff.

Corrections commitee chair Alice Emmons was eager to take on the challenge, although she cautioned that such a package would be “a heavy lift,” especially in this pandemic-oriented session.

“We need to get a draft of a bill,” she said, creating a working group of four committee members to produce a draft, preferably by the end of this week. The four are Emmons and Reps. Sara Coffey, Michael Morgan and Michelle Bos-Lun. They will meet with Baker and Legislative Counsel to work out a draft, and she would begin to schedule hearings as soon as next week.

Which will be necessary if this thing is to move along. Emmons noted that time is already running short; she reminded members that the Town Meeting break is now four weeks away. Such a bill would have to clear relevant committees and the House before the crossover deadline, which is usually the Friday after Town Meeting break.

That’s all positive. There’s a dedication and shared sense of purpose in fixing the DOC’s problems. But for the foreseeable future, female inmates will have to put up with shower facilities that, in the words of one inmate, “reeked of human waste and were infested with sewer flies, maggots and mold.”

Yuck.

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