We’ve Been Shortchanging Female Inmates for a Long Time

I don’t normally tune into a legislative committee hearing to get a history lesson. But that’s what I got Wednesday afternoon. It was a tough one to take.

Vermont’s women’s prison, d/b/a Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, is in really bad shape. It’s old, and was never designed to be a full-scale prison. It’s unsanitary and inadequate for inmates’ needs.

I knew that. What I didn’t know until today is that the CRCF has been that way since it first opened as a women’s prison back in 2011. The Shumlin administration moved female inmates into the already-aging facility knowing full well that it wasn’t up to par.

The hearing featured Cary Brown, executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women, testifying before the House Corrections and Institutions Committee. She was giving the VCW’s views on the process for building a new women’s prison, which is about to get underway.

During her testimony, Brown mentioned a 2012 report on the women’s prison, co-authored by several nonprofits and agencies concerned with women’s issues. It was entitled “Reclaiming Lost Ground for Vermont’s Incarcerated Women: The Disturbing Conditions at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility.” (The report is downloadable from multiple websites; if you’re interested, search for “‘Reclaiming Lost Ground’ Vermont”.)

Remember: This report wasn’t about an ancient, dilapidated Arkham Asylum sort of place. It was about an institution that had just opened, albeit in a repurposed building.

The release of “Reclaiming Lost Ground” was covered by VTDigger at the time. The article says the report found “startling conditions” at CRCF, including a broken-down HVAC system, inadequate wiring, crowded cells, a lack of exercise, employment and training programs, and — the topper on this little sundae — “chronic sewer problems, including sewer flies and larvae in the shower drains.”

Wait. That sounds familiar. Fast forward to a 2019 lawsuit filed by a CRCF inmate over poor conditions, including showers that ““reeked of human waste and were infested with sewer flies, maggots and mold.”

(This is the lawsuit thrown out of court by alleged misogynistic Judge Samuel Hoar, who agreed that the conditions were atrocious but not dire enough to warrant court action.)

It was bad enough to know that the showers have been disgusting since 2019. But to realize that inmates have been subject to these conditions for a full decade?I’m ashamed of my state. This is punishment above and beyond the sentences these inmates are serving.

So how did this happen? Not long after he took office in 2011, Shumlin announced the move from the Northwest State Correctional Facility at Swanton to CRCF. At the time, he said that the move would save money and reduce recidivism by bringing women closer to transitional programs in the Burlington area. The administration acknowledged the facility’s shortcomings and committed itself to several capital improvements.

And then came Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011, battering the state, draining government resources and occupying the state’s time and attention. Which led to the February 2012 report citing “disturbing signs that we’re not only falling short of the Governor’s vision, but are on track to erode a decade’s worth of progress in our work with incarcerated women.”

Some things have improved at CRCF since then, but the unsanitary conditions and general inadequacy are basically unchanged. It’s been literally another decade of erosion.

Thankfully the process for replacing CRCF has begun. Unfortunately, it’s going to take years of planning, design, site acquisition and building to get there.

Vermont’s incarcerated women have gotten the short end of the stick for a long time. For a decade, they’ve been consigned to a facility that wasn’t good enough on Day One. Here’s hoping the replacement process will proceed with some measure of alacrity.

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