Hang On, Female Inmates, We’ll Get You a New Prison In Maybe Less Than a Decade

This charming space, with its comfy chairs and natural lighting and complete absence of books, is either a prospective rendering of Vermont State University’s new “library” or a possible concept for a new women’s prison in Vermont.

Spoiler alert: it’s the latter. On Thursday morning, the House Corrections & Institutions Committee took the next small step toward building a new facility to replace the inadequate and unsanitary mess that is the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, a.k.a. Vermont’s women’s prison.

I say “small step” because, as the hearing revealed, it’s going to take — maybe — five to eight years to complete the process of designing, siting, and building a new facility. Or possibly longer. There could be roadblocks, and everything is dependent on a solid funding commitment. I’m sure the inmates can be patient about this.

The hearing centered on a presentation by HOK, an architectural firm that’s best known for building sports stadiums but has also designed more than $4 billion in what it euphemistically calls “justice facilities.” HOK’s Justice Division, so they say, “focuses on designs for human rights and a more just world as a whole.” By building prisons. (It received $1.5 million from the state for doing the research that led to Thursday’s presentation, which can be downloaded from the committee’s website.)

In the first phase of its study, commissioned in 2020, HOK unreservedly recommended closure of CRCF and replacement with a new facility. The state is committed to do so, but that’s about as far as it’s gotten. Veteran C&I Chair Alice Emmons said this year’s work will focus on finding a location for the new facility. “You don’t do nothin’ without land,” she said. The 2024 session will focus on moving from the concept-idea stage toward an architectural design. After that comes project bidding and selection, construction, and making the transition from CRCF to the new place.

There was no attempt to determine how large the new facility should be, but there was plenty of discussion on the subject that broke down into two camps: We’ve got to build it as big as it might possibly need to be, or we can take a less maximalist approach because we’ll continue on the path of justice reform because incarcerating large numbers of people is fundamentally inhumane and counterproductive.

Sorry, couldn’t resist.

The backdrop for the capacity discussion was a pretty significant decline in the female inmate population in recent years. Before 2020, it was fairly stable in the 140-150 range. Starting in early 2020 it dropped by more than a third. It’s climbed back up a bit since then, but it’s barely into three figures.

There’s been a similar decline in the male population, that’s often ascribed to the pandemic, but also coincides with some major reforms stemming from the Justice Reinvestment II bill (Act 148) of 2020. The latter seems like a more logical explanation.

Corrections Commissioner Nicholas Deml and Buildings and General Services Commissioner Jennifer Fitch argued for more capacity. “This is a 20 to 50 year facility,” Fitch said. “Trends go up and down. We need to think long-term and be strategic.”

The loyal opposition was led by Rep. Michelle Bos-Lun (D-Westminster), who argued that justice reform has only just begun. “If we have reforms emphasizing diversion and restorative justice, that could dramatically change the number of people who’d be incarcerated,” she said. “Restorative practices have worked really well in other places. That isn’t factored into the HOK report.”

Deml’s counter-argument: We’ve already done the easy work on reducing headcount. For the most part, he said, “nonviolent and drug offenders aren’t in [prison] anymore. It’s violent offenders.” He acknowledged that there’s still work to do, “but I don’t see things changing to the point where it affects the construction of a new facility.”

Ryan Rohlfs of HOK pointed out that “the consequences of building too small” are greater than the consequences of overbuilding. They include, he said, the Inability to properly separate by classification, Inadequate space for re-entry and therapeutic needs, and the potential costs of adding space. he also cited the potential need to send female inmates out of state, which would lead to family separation.

That sounds nice, but the DOC has never held the same view about male inmates. Men are still sent to a for-profit prison in Mississippi (that, lest we forget, once enabled a massive Covid outbreak among Vermont inmates) even though our inmate population has fallen far below our system’s capacity.

Besides, one single piece of justice reform could further reduce our detainee population by hundreds: the end of cash bail. In 2018 the Vermont ACLU noted that “in Vermont, around 400 people every day are incarcerated pre-trial, many because they cannot afford to pay bail.”

So I don’t buy the idea that we must build big in case the inmate population reverses its decline.

But you know what? It’s a false dichotomy. Deml himself said so.

We need to make this as modular and adaptable as possible. We don’t know what best practices will be in 50 years. The best tool is to make it as flexible, modular, and adaptable as possible so we can change with the times. The current design didn’t. We can’t do that again.

Which sinks his own argument about preparing for 50 years of uncertainty. Flexibility and adaptability are far more sensible principles than trying to future-proof a design.

I hope advocates of justice reform and members of C&I remember Deml’s words when it’s time to determine capacity. If we think practically instead of institutionally, we can right-size the women’s prison while still maintaining flexibility in case of unexpected trends in crime and punishment.

Or is that too practical?


2 thoughts on “Hang On, Female Inmates, We’ll Get You a New Prison In Maybe Less Than a Decade

  1. Senator Irene Wrenner

    Check out the Senate Institutions Committee meeting with HOK, at about the 20-minute point, in which I confirmed that the number of beds is the sticking point and suggested that we build 100 double rooms, for example, and put 100 beds in them. Should there be a need to expand or reconfigure, more beds could be added. At 21:33, the presenter acknowledges, “Really great point.”
    Sounds to me like we CAN build for the future today.

  2. montpelier28

    As with all prison stories in Vermont this one is also very depressing. And I can’t resist. Sending our male inmates to a Mississippi private prison is just so wrong in so many ways.


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