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Jim Kenyon: Windsor Prison Closing Is Everyone’s Loss

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Tuesday, August 08, 2017

They mowed Windsor’s ball fields. They painted West Windsor’s fire station. They built the holding cells in Hartford’s police station.

Inmates at Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor have long had a hand in the upkeep of public buildings and grounds throughout Windsor County.

It was a win-win.

Towns saved thousands of dollars annually in maintenance costs. Churches, libraries and other nonprofit organizations also reaped the benefits of inmates’ labor.

Meanwhile inmates earned a few bucks — and I do mean a few — and had time knocked off their sentences. They were also doing something more productive than watching TV, which is how many offenders at other Vermont prisons spend their days.

But apparently Gov. Phil Scott and state lawmakers couldn’t see the value of having inmates give back to the communities that they might well be returning to some day.

Last week, the state confirmed it was going ahead with plans to close the century-old “prison farm” on the outskirts of Windsor. State officials haven’t said what they plan to do with the 900-acre complex, which began as a dairy farm.

Similar to when the Vermont Department of Corrections got out of the dairy business in the 1990s, the reason now being given is economics. The state estimates that it can save $3.5 million annually by moving inmates elsewhere.

“There never seemed to be a robust conversation (in Montpelier) about what makes this prison unique,” Windsor Town Manager Tom Marsh said.

Closing the prison “seems shortsighted,” Marsh added. “I don’t have confidence that a lot of thought went into it.”

I suspect he’s right.

With the state facing tight budget times, the Windsor prison was an easy target — particularly since the current Windsor-area legislative delegation didn’t possess the clout in Montpelier to put the brakes on the proposal. (Having John Campbell, a Windsor County Democrat, as Senate president came in handy when closing the prison was broached in 2015.)

Windsor was the state’s costliest prison at $77,769 annually per inmate. (Last year, the state average was $62,914.)

Economy of scale is a big reason. Currently, with 46 inmates, it’s the smallest of the state’s seven prisons. But with enough dormitory space for 100 inmates, keeping the prison half empty has been by choice.

Last August, DOC Deputy Commissioner Mike Touchette told me the number of “work-crew-eligible inmates has been decreasing regularly for the past five years or so.” The state has made a concerted effort to reduce its prison population in recent years (currently at about 1,800 inmates).

But instead of increasing the number of inmates eligible for work crew, DOC has opted to keep offenders locked up in more restrictive facilities. With the closing of Windsor on Oct. 31, the state will be down to a single work camp in St. Johnsbury. The DOC sent a letter recently to Windsor-area towns and nonprofit organizations informing them that its “services” will soon end because “we no longer have the resources” to help out.

The work crews “saved our town thousands of dollars, but I’m sure that doesn’t matter to the state,” said Mike Spackman, who heads West Windsor’s highway department and also is chief of the volunteer fire department.

West Windsor paid about $800 for inmates to paint its fire station’s exterior. Hiring a private contractor would probably have cost at least five times that, Spackman said.

But it’s not just about the savings. Work crews are good PR for DOC. With inmates mowing cemeteries and picking up roadside trash, residents can see their tax dollars at work.

Having offenders in the community also helps residents see them as “human beings,” Spackman said. “They’re often just people who made bad decisions.”

As inmates wrapped up the refinishing of the hardwood floors in West Windsor’s Story Memorial Hall, Town Clerk Cathy Archibald baked them cinnamon rolls. A few days later, she received a thank-you note signed by inmates.

“They’re great workers,” Archibald told me. “They’re not lazy, that’s for sure.”

In Hartford, inmates “did an outstanding job” on police station renovations, Deputy Chief Brad Vail said in an email. “The daily interaction on a neutral basis between the inmates working here and our staff proved to be a collateral benefit as well.”

Nationally, 95 percent of offenders eventually are released from prison. It’s in society’s best interest that they have job skills and a sense of community before hitting the streets.

On Monday morning, I caught up with a small work crew painting the ceiling in West Windsor’s fire station. We chatted for a while. They praised their DOC supervisor, who often works beside them, for teaching them carpentry skills.

An inmate remarked that residents sometimes go out of their way to thank him for his work. “It shows you mean something again to people,” he said.

The prisoners ranged in age from 21 to 54. Their crimes included burglary and drug dealing. One of them told me that a drinking problem had contributed to him bouncing in and out of prison for the last 30 years.

After serving 10 years for assaulting a police officer, he expects to get out in January. On the work crew, he’s paid 50 cents an hour, which amounts to $15 a week. After buying coffee and toiletries from the prison commissary, he doesn’t have much left for savings.

I asked what he planned to do for work when he’s out. “Hopefully, painting,” he said, noting that he’d stress his experience on the work crew to potential employers.

If only more inmates could say the same in the future.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.