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Vt. lawmakers and town officials debate the future of the closed Windsor prison

An overhead view of a snowy property with fences and barn outbuildings against a blue sky.
Kyle Ambusk
Vermont PBS
The former state prison in Windsor was a working farm at one point. Now the state is trying to figure out what to do with the property.

The Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor closed in 2017, but there haven’t been any solid plans yet to reuse the property.

Lawmakers this year are again talking about what to do with the facility, and the people in Windsor want to have a part in deciding what to do with the former prison.

More from VPR: WATCH: This Windsor prison closed in 2017. State & town officials are debating its future

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman about the Windsor prison. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: So, Howard, remind us briefly why the prison closed four and a half years ago?

Howard Weiss-Tisman: In a word, money was the main reason. The Southeast State Correctional Facility was the most expensive prison in Vermont at the time.

It was built more than 100 years ago as a work farm. And it used to have a slaughterhouse and a dairy barn. So it's a really nice facility. But it took a lot of staff to supervise the prisoners there, because it's not really a secure prison per se. The prisoner-to-staff ratio was much higher there than other prisons in the state.

And even back when they were preparing to close it, there was a lot of talk about what might happen there. And they're still talking about it.

The prison has been sitting there for four and a half years since. Why is it now being brought up again and talked about in Montpelier?

Well, two reasons. Last year, lawmakers asked for a report because they wanted to find out what it was costing to keep things going there, to keep the water running and maintain the grounds and whatnot. And they found out that it's very expensive. It's costing the state more money really than the property's worth. Every four or five years the state's dumping more money into it than what it's valued at. So that report came out early this year. It got some people talking.

And then when the legislative session started, some lawmakers thought the state should house juvenile offenders there. The Woodside Juvenile Detention Center in Essex was closed a few years ago. And there's really no plan right now for the juvenile offenders. So a bill was introducedto move the juvenile offenders to Windsor. And that brought the conversation back up to the front burner for some committees.

And you got a firsthand look, recently, you took a tour of this Windsor prison, we put together a videoof this with Vermont PBS ... Howard, what stood out to you about what you saw during that visit, and what people in Windsor are saying and feeling about the future of this property?

So when that talk came up about moving the juvenile offenders to Windsor, you know, it really caught the attention of the folks in town. They've been waiting for some kind of a decision about the property for a long time, but they don't want another prison. They don't want a large-scale human services facility.

So when that bill was introduced, it really caught some people off-guard. This is what Windsor Town Manager Tom Marsh told me about that:

“It's been a frustrating process, with all of the stuff that's going on. No matter what the decision is made, Windsor is going to be the one that's left living with it. All the legislatures that vote on this, any business that comes and go, they're all going to come and go. But for the next 200 years, the town of Windsor is going to live with the results of whatever decision is made.”

"For the next 200 years, the town of Windsor is going to live with the results of whatever decision is made.”
Tom Marsh, Windsor Town Manager

So the property is really nice, you know, it's got water and sewer, some of the buildings are old and have to come down. But there's still a lot of nice facilities there that could be used for housing, or maybe some kind of a business campus. So the town is looking for some kind of direction on the future of the property. It's just sitting there.

It's been four and a half years, and the folks in Windsor are just hoping some kind of decision is made about how to move forward.

Now that brings us up to the present. What are some of the ideas that are being floated now for this space?

So first up, the state is doing another study, there's been a lot of studies about this. So what they want to know now is, you know, what it's going to cost to kind of take the next step. There's a bunch of derelict buildings that can definitely come down. There's razor wire still up. And while that's protecting the facility, it doesn't really invite developers, so they're trying to figure out what will it cost to remove the razor wire? What will it cost to tear down the old buildings that can't stay? And even what would it cost to take the whole thing down to dirt if there was really some kind of large-scale housing or development there. What would it cost the state, you know, to make the property ready for whatever's next?

And there's also a plan floating from the local regional development commission. They want more of a local input. You know, when this juvenile offender idea came up, it caught a lot of people off-guard. And so they're trying to kind of jumpstart a conversation within the community, so people are aware of what's happening in Montpelier, and they feel like they have more of a say about it.

So it's been four and a half years. The state doesn't seem too eager to sell it. But there's just a feeling like a decision has to be made one way or the other. And maybe that might happen in the next year or so.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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