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End of a Long Chapter in Windsor as Prison Closes

  • Corrections work crew supervisor Dana LaPlante loads a metal detector taken from the gatehouse of the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor. Vt., onto a truck Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. Equipment and supplies from the prison complex were being put into storage or redistributed to other prisons in the state in preparation for the closure of the facility. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Old riot gear fills a corner in the administration building of the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor, Vt., as employees move equipment to storage in preparation for the prison's closure Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A phone hangs outside one of the five-person dormitory rooms at the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor, Vt., Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. The last 18 inmates were relocated on Oct. 23. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Corrections officers Megan Dole, left, Stacy Boutilier, middle, and Bruce Clark move supplies and equipment from the kitchen to storage on the grounds of the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor, Vt., in preparation for its closure, Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. "It seems strange to come to work without a uniform and a duty belt," said Clark. "I'm used to carrying handcuffs, not this stuff." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Cabbages still fill a section of garden that yielded 4,000 pounds of produce this year by the labor of inmates at the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor, Vt., Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. The original dormitory was built in 1916 by warden Ralph Walker who started a farm run by inmates as an experiment on 1,200 acres of state-owned land. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Correspondent
Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Windsor — Southeast State Correctional Facility closed on Tuesday, putting a quiet end to the town’s 208 years of hosting a state prison, which was the first of its kind in the U.S.

“It is sad to walk away from a very unique facility,” Superintendent Kat Tkaczyk said on Monday morning while standing in a courtyard area near the brick dormitory building that housed most of the inmates; the final 18 were relocated on Oct. 23.

Other buildings, constructed over the years with inmate labor, were being emptied of equipment and materials, most of it destined for other facilities run by the Vermont Department of Corrections.

“You can liken it to when you move out of an apartment and you clean everything up, and that is basically what we are doing,” Tkaczyk said.

The Legislature voted last session to close the facility for financial reasons — the same reason the first prison on State Street, opened in 1809, closed in 1975. Those buildings later were converted to housing. Now the question becomes what will happen to the buildings and grounds located off County Road?

Windsor officials and several residents have urged the state to find a way to repurpose the facility to the town’s benefit instead of simply walking away from the property.

Initially comprising about 900 acres, most of the fields and forest surrounding the fenced-in prison farm property were transferred to the state Fish and Wildlife Department in 2016, leaving about 100 acres to be managed by the Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services.

Part of the legislation to close the facility required the corrections department to prepare a report on converting the property to transitional housing as a way for inmates to reintegrate into the community.

Transitional housing is an idea that Windsor resident John Mayo, whose father worked at the prison, steadfastly opposes. Mayo said the prison had been part of his life “since day one” and that it provided well for his family growing up, but now the time has come for something different.

“It is finally time for corrections to leave Windsor,” Mayo said. “The prison is gone and now get the little bit of what is left there out of here once and for all.”

Transitional housing, which Mayo refers to as a halfway house, is a bad idea, he said, because the property is in a rural setting in a town with not a lot of job opportunities.

“I can’t think of a worse spot for transitional housing,” Mayo said.

He said he would prefer something that generates revenue for the town’s tax base.

Resident John MacGovern, who lives on the bordering Marton Road, said the closing offers an opportunity for Windsor.

“The town of Windsor has had a long, varied relationship with the state prison system,” MacGovern said in an email. “In its early years it was a benefit as employment for the area. Very good people worked there and were an asset to the region. But recently it’s been left to die on the vine. Now, it is good that it is closing. It should be seen as a great opportunity, something new and exciting for Windsor and the region.”

Inmates began working the land off County Road about 100 years ago, according to former prison Superintendent Mike Coxon, who worked at the facility from 1976 until his retirement in 2002.

Coxon said a “progressive” warden by the name of Ralph Walker brought the idea of a farm for inmates to Windsor in 1915 and built a dormitory there a year later. Coxon said the state purchased about 1,200 acres that were five private farms. (Some of the land was later sold for construction of Mt. Ascutney Hospital.)

Since that initial experiment, which did not always go well — “(Walker) had a lot of walkaways,” Coxon said — the property has been used for a variety of activities, including a working dairy farm, which shut down in the early 1990s; a sugaring operation; a piggery; auto repair shop and bike repair.

Over the years, more buildings were constructed, a new dormitory was built, fencing was added and, in the 1980s, barbed wire was strung along the top of the fencing, Coxon said.

While residents may or may not miss the prison, officials from area towns are sure to lament the loss of labor provided by work crews that went out into the communities and did a variety of work for town governments and nonprofits, including painting, light construction and landscaping.

Windsor work crew supervisor Alden Tewksbury, who was helping to load lawn mowers, snowblowers and other equipment onto a trailer for transport to St. Johnsbury, Vt., on Monday, said he has supervised crews for the past eight years.

“We went all over,” Tewksbury said. “We repainted the fire station in Cavendish, went to Fairlee and rebuilt the bandstand. Did quite a few churches, painted the outside of the Old South Church (in Windsor) about the time Tropical Storm Irene hit. That was more than 100 gallons of paint and primer. We helped down at the school –— helped put the playground in.”

Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten is among those who are sorry to see the work crews depart.

“We were expecting them back this winter,” said Kasten, who had nothing but praise for the program and the completed work.

“This is an opportunity for offenders to ease their way back into the community,” Kasten said. “It is important. Equally important are the interpersonal relationships between the inmates and the community. Now, with the prison closing, it limits those opportunities.”

Tkaczyk, the superintendent, said the St. Johnsbury, Vt., prison is the only other correctional facility with a work crew program. A three-year employee of the Windsor prison, she spoke proudly of the opportunities afforded to inmates.

“We offered a lot here,” she said. “They weren’t sitting in their cells 24 hours a day. Inmates were given a lot of opportunity (for self-improvement). They were always doing something here, (such as) sanding, plowing, shoveling in winter. Inmates pretty much did everything.”

Pointing to a large open shed in one corner of the property, Tkaczyk said the inmates cut, split and stacked all the wood for the wood-fired heating system. In the kitchen, they helped with food service and were able to obtain certification for safe food and cookware handling that they could use to obtain a restaurant job.

In another building, where visitors meet with inmates, hundreds of toys were made for the Toys for Tots program. In winter, inmates performed maintenance on equipment and began planting seeds in a greenhouse for a large garden.

Windsor has always been a good host, Tkacyzk said, and that is why these programs, in and out of the prison, are successful.

“We have a lot of community support,” she said. “It is not always popular to have a prison in your backyard, but by and large we always had community support.”

When it was in full operation, the 100-bed prison had a staff of about 60, but only 15 remained on the last day. While a few close to retirement took that option, Tkaczyk said most have been reassigned within the DOC, with the majority going to the prison in Springfield, Vt.

The prison had been under capacity for a while and, at about $83,000 per inmate, also had become the most costly per-capita prison in the state, officials acknowledged earlier this year.

Windsor, with just 3,500 residents, should be proud of its prison past and for shouldering a large percentage of the burden for housing inmates, resident Mike Quinn said.

“I think that Windsor can be respected for doing a social duty by housing the first state prison in the U.S. for so long,” he said in an email. ”There is a positive significance to that service to society by a small Vermont town.”

Quinn highlighted the property’s assets — prime agricultural soil and a new water system — and said they could become part of the next phase of its life.

“I think that an appropriate use for the facility and the surrounding grounds might be something agriculture related, since the property was formed by the combination of past farms,” he said.

But he also is aware that state officials seem interested in a place for transitional housing.

“My prediction would be on a reuse that still addressed the state’s needs for inmate rehabilitation and re-entry into society, because I sense that the state feels pressure to fulfill that responsibility,” he said.

Town Manager Tom Marsh said it isn’t enough for Windsor residents to oppose transitional housing: they need to take action.

It would be an “uphill battle” to go to the Legislature without a specific plan for repurposing the property, Marsh said. He said a simpler approach would be to recommend demolishing the buildings that are in disrepair and highlight the assets.

“Just paint a picture of what the facility has to offer: a new water system, solar power, municipal sewer, 100 acres and solid buildings, and take that to the Legislature,” Marsh said.

Some residents, like MacGovern, already have ideas for the property’s future use.

“(An) agricultural school, a regional headquarters for Google,” he suggested. “Windsor and the community must think big. Now let’s seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Patrick O’Grady can reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.