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Vermont is planning for a new women’s prison. Critics say it’s too big

A green sign with white block letters reads Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. It's in front of a parking lot of a brick building with a green roof.
Meg Malone
Vermont Public file
Vermont’s only women's prison, Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, is half a century old and in terrible shape. The state has set aside millions for a new facility, but construction is years away.

On a recent morning in March, Tanya Gagne talked about the building where she’s lived on and off for 20 years.

“It needs to be condemned,” she said. “We get flies that come out of the drain. We get worms that come out of the drain.”

Gagne is currently awaiting trial at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, Vermont's only prison for women. It’s a 50-year-old fortress built on a swamp, and has at least $5 million worth of deferred maintenance.

She was talking to state Sen. Wendy Harrison during a tour arranged by the Vermont Department of Corrections.

“We do not do prison well, and we can do much better.”
Sen. Wendy Harrison

Harrison, a Democrat from Windham County, sits on the legislative committee that deals with prisons.

“There’s often an assumption that we do prisons well, the way we do other things well, and that is not an accurate assumption,” Harrison said during a phone interview. “We do not do prison well, and we can do much better.”

In recent years, the Department of Corrections has adopted an ideology of rehabilitation — to humanely treat and train people to be successful citizens when they’re released, according to the agency.

That’s meant new paint on the walls, murals of the Vermont landscape and inspirational quotes. Services like domestic violence support have moved directly into the prison. There’s also a new “honors unit,” where some low-security prisoners on good behavior can live together unsupervised.

But agency leaders say they can’t make more substantial changes because they’re trapped in the 1970s prison.

“I don't think anybody has any security issue with them having access to their own light, or having access to water that doesn't shut off after 15 seconds,” said Jordan Pasha, the security operations supervisor. “It's just because of our infrastructure.”

He and other agency staff say they need an entirely new building.

The dayroom is where some of the women in a new living unit model watch movies together.
Vermont Department of Corrections
In an "honors" living unit at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, women are given greater liberties like doing laundry when they want.

The Department of Corrections is working with a global prison design firm on a proposal of a 158-bed facility that would cost around $70 million. So far, about $15 million has already been set aside.

They’re drawing inspiration from a new prison not too far away — the Southern Maine Women’s Reentry Center.

Sen. Harrison has visited the facilities in Maine, and said they were designed with rehabilitation in mind.

“People who are incarcerated are encouraged to talk to each other and to settle potential disputes with each other and to do it directly using restorative justice processes,” she said.

In Vermont, the proposed facility would look more like a college dorm. It would have additional honors units, more natural light, and less restrictions on movement and interactions between prisoners.

There is also a proposed reentry unit, where prisoners would move to prepare for outside life.

However, there is still a lot left to figure out, like potential locations for the new facility and a timeline for construction.

“I don't think anybody has any security issue with them having access to their own light, or having access to water that doesn't shut off after 15 seconds. It's just because of our infrastructure."
Jordan Pasha, Vermont Department of Corrections

Those loose plans have advocates like Falko Schilling, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, wanting concrete details before he can support the proposal — especially its size. He thinks 158 beds is too large.

“We need to make sure that we are not overbuilding or expanding the prison footprint in the state,” Schilling said.

The current prison can hold up to 170 people, but the women's prison population has decreased over the past decade and about half of the roughly 100 women held there today are awaiting trial. That has some people questioning whether Vermont needs a new facility at all.

Earlier this spring, around 25 people gathered in front of the women's prison to protest plans for the new facility, organized by the prison abolition group Free Her Vermont.

Jayna Ahsaf, the campaign field organizer, said funding community-level alternatives to prison is a better use of state resources, along with tracking what happens to released prisoners and reasons for recidivism.

“We could spend that $15 million really investing in those tracking outcomes,” she said. “So in a year from now, we can show people we don't need a prison for the 50 or so people who are sentenced — we can build smaller facilities or even homes across the state that meet needs way better.”

A lawn sign in front of a porch reads "no new women's prison in Vermont" in purple letters.
Lexi Krupp
Vermont Public
A lawn sign in Burlington protests the plans for the replacement of Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, seen in early May.

Vermont already has some of these programs, like Dismas House and Pathways Vermont. Part of their funding comes from the state, but they have limited beds.

Sen. Harrison hears these concerns, but she says the state isn’t ready to not have a prison for women.

“I think that there are and will be a small number of people who do need to be kept separate for their protection and for the public's protection,” she said. “It is a much smaller number than we have incarcerated now.”

Another concern for advocates is staffing the new facility. In Vermont, vacancies at the Department of Corrections are currently around 15%. That’s down from 30% a few years ago, when Vermont implemented a temporary 60-hour work week for correctional officers.

But staff shortages are still impacting services in the prison — like the availability of library books. They’re supposed to be switched from unit to unit, Tanya Gagne explained on the tour in March.

“We got two bookcases over here but they're all the same books — we never get them exchanged,” she said. “So yeah, it's bad.”

This story was produced in collaboration between Vermont Public and the Community News Service. The Community News Service is a student-powered partnership between the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program and community newspapers across Vermont.

Corrected: May 14, 2024 at 4:10 PM EDT
An earlier version of this story misidentified Jordan Pasha's role. He is the security operations supervisor, not the acting superintendent, of Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility.
Updated: May 13, 2024 at 12:11 PM EDT
Additional context was added to explain that Jayna Ahsaf was referencing what happens to released prisoners as the tracking outcomes she wants the state to invest in.
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