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Jim Kenyon: A Chance to Turn Lives Around; Former State Senator Eyes Mount Holly, Vt., Inn as Rehabilitation Center for Women

  • Will Hunter talks with Dave Nowlan at the house in Springfield, Vt., that Hunter renovated for former prison inmates in need of affordable housing and a “caring environment.” Hunter wants to open a similar “sober house” in Mount Holly, Vt., for women. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Will Hunter talks with Dave Nowlan at the house in Springfield, Vt., that Hunter renovated for former prison inmates in need of affordable housing and a “caring environment.” Hunter wants to open a similar “sober house” in Mount Holly, Vt., for women. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Purchase photo reprints »

  • Purchase photo reprints »

  • Will Hunter stands in front of Blue Spruce House, a former inn in Mount Holly, Vt., that he has renovated. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Will Hunter stands in front of Blue Spruce House, a former inn in Mount Holly, Vt., that he has renovated. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A residence area Will Hunter hopes will be used by a portion of the state’s female inmate population. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    A residence area Will Hunter hopes will be used by a portion of the state’s female inmate population. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A common room Will Hunter hopes will be used by a portion of the state’s female inmate population. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    A common room Will Hunter hopes will be used by a portion of the state’s female inmate population. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Will Hunter talks with Dave Nowlan at the house in Springfield, Vt., that Hunter renovated for former prison inmates in need of affordable housing and a “caring environment.” Hunter wants to open a similar “sober house” in Mount Holly, Vt., for women. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Will Hunter stands in front of Blue Spruce House, a former inn in Mount Holly, Vt., that he has renovated. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • A residence area Will Hunter hopes will be used by a portion of the state’s female inmate population. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • A common room Will Hunter hopes will be used by a portion of the state’s female inmate population. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Mount Holly, Vt. — On a flat, desolate stretch of Route 155 in southern Rutland County, an old-fashioned roadhouse sits vacant. The Blue Spruce Inn was once a place where skiers and other travelers could stop for a drink or dinner. Some spent the night in motel-style rooms.

But that was before many Vermont ski areas became year-round resorts that offered slopeside accommodations and restaurants. Over time, roadhouses like the Blue Spruce lost their appeal.

Will Hunter, a former state senator for Windsor County who lives in Cavendish, Vt., has a plan to bring the Blue Spruce back to life.

Instead of roadhouse, he’s thinking sober house. A place where people used to stop for a drink would become a place where people go to stop drinking.

Hunter is seeking the state’s blessing — and money — to make Blue Spruce House into an alternative to prison for a dozen or so women who have run afoul of the law. Rather than kill time behind bars, women would receive treatment for their substance abuse problems and learn job skills in a group-home setting, where they would stay under around-the-clock supervision for six to nine months.

In exchange for completing the Blue Spruce program, women could have their pending criminal charges reduced or dropped. “The idea is to work with people so they don’t end up going to jail over and over again,” Hunter said. “It would be a place where women with addictions could go for a chance to turn their lives around and become responsible parents and citizens again.”

Hunter’s timing is good.

Vermont, much more so than neighboring New Hampshire, has begun to recognize that it can’t afford — literally — to continue sending nonviolent offenders with substance abuse problems to prison, where the chances are fairly high that they will come out more troubled and less employable than when they arrived.

Supporters of a different approach aren’t confined to the “soft-on-crime” crowd. Last Tuesday, Rutland Police Chief Jim Baker, who previously headed the Vermont State Police, told a legislative committee that in Vermont, “No more jails are going to be built. We already know that model doesn’t work.”

Law enforcement officials are starting to listen more closely to people like Hunter, who have argued for years that Vermont — or any other state, for that matter — can’t arrest its way out of its drug problem. “Many of us didn’t get into this business to be social workers, but that’s where we find ourselves today,” Baker said during testimony before the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions.

Hunter, 59, didn’t start out in social services, either. He’s an Ivy League-educated lawyer by training with a story of his own (see related column, page B1) who is throwing much of his time, energy and money into helping society’s castoffs.

Blue Spruce, which is just one of Hunter’s projects, would serve a specific group.

On any given day, 40 or so women are being held behind bars in Vermont on criminal charges that haven’t been resolved. They account for roughly 25 percent of the inmates at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, the state prison for women.

The reasons for their pre-trial incarceration vary. Some have been accused of violating their probation or have a lengthy criminal history, which can make them less likely to be released by judges prior to trial. Others simply can’t raise the money for bail. “They don’t have someone on the outside to help them get out,” said Jill Evans, women and family coordinator at the Vermont Department of Corrections.

Many times, it seems, men charged with crimes have an easier time coming up with bail money. Wives, mothers or girlfriends come to their rescue. “What we see, anecdotally at least, is that women often don’t have the same support system,” Evans said.

At Chittenden Regional, the women can be locked up for months, far away from their children, before their cases are resolved. Often their cases don’t even reach the trial stage. The accused’s lawyer, usually a public defender, and the prosecutor will work out a deal. If the woman agrees to plead guilty, she’s given credit for the time she’s already served.

The upside is that the woman doesn’t have to spend any more time behind bars. The downside is that while she languished in prison, she didn’t receive treatment for her substance abuse problem, which in many cases is the underlying reason for her brush with the law.

Last week’s Statehouse discussion touched on how “bad actors,” such as major drug dealers, can be kept off the streets, while steering low-risk offenders battling substance abuse away from costly and unproductive pre-trial detention. Baker and Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn stressed that the number of detainees is only going to increase because the state’s heroin problem is not going away. “The reason we have a lot of heroin is because there’s a lot of demand for it,” Flynn said.

Drug dealers from New York City, Hartford, Conn., and other cities have discovered that Vermont is a lucrative market, and even offer free samples to get people to try their products. “Dealers are giving away heroin to boost demand,” Baker said. Once they’re hooked, heroin users must find ways to feed $1,000-a-week habits. They’re committing burglaries and stealing metals, such as copper, which is “easily converted to cash,” Flynn said.

Flynn expects the “detainee population to keep going up” as drug users are arrested for crimes committed to support their habits. But he warned lawmakers that, “If we are looking for law enforcement to get us out of our drug problem, we’re going to be very disappointed.”

The discussion focused on male pre-trial detainees, of which the state has roughly 400, or about 20 percent of its incarcerated population. But whether they are male or female inmates, the issue is the same. It’s time to look at what “initiatives can be put in place to bring these numbers down and divert (detainees) from the revolving door,” said Rep. Alice Emmons, a Springfield Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions.

Women account for only 7 percent of the state’s prison population, but last year it cost taxpayers $79,642 per inmate to keep 150 or so women locked up at Chittenden Regional. That’s roughly three times the amount needed to send an in-state student to the University of Vermont.

And Chittenden Regional is hardly the Hilton.

Last year, seven nonprofit groups that work with women prisoners issued a scathing report that detailed the “disturbing conditions” at Chittenden Regional. There aren’t enough toilets. Worms and sewer flies had infiltrated shower drains. Frequently, there is too little heat or too much. Some four-person cells had just one electrical outlet, limiting access to fans during hot weather in a prison, built in 1976, with few windows that open. The state has spent more than $500,000 on improvements to the facility since the report was released, Vermont Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito said on Friday.

The “white paper” also decried the lack of job training and other programs that would help women find something other than low-paying jobs after they are released.

“It’s time to end the DOC’s monopoly,” Hunter said, referring to the Department of Corrections. “We shouldn’t be putting all our resources into their approach. The DOC should be overseeing sociopaths and other predatory abusers who need to be put behind fences. That’s what the DOC is good at.”

But most female inmates don’t fall into the serious-threat-to-public-safety category. In Vermont, 64 percent of incarcerated women are nonviolent offenders, compared with 38 percent of males.

It would be less expensive for taxpayers, and more beneficial for women caught up in the criminal justice system, for the state to focus on finding more alternatives to prison, Hunter said. The recidivism rate is another reason for trying something new. According to a 2012 DOC report, only one in four offenders (male and female) managed to avoid being “re-lodged” after their release into the community. Almost half — 44 percent — of inmates went back behind bars for 90 days or more for new crimes or violations.

A telling statistic about the state’s recidivism rates: Re-offenders are locked up for average of 60 days. “That’s a problem,” Hunter said. “By the time you get out after two months, you may have lost your lost job, and then you lose your housing.”

The nonprofit Maple Leaf Farm, an inpatient drug and alcohol treatment center in Underhill, Vt., released a recidivism study in 2011 that spoke to the benefits of treatment over incarceration. Maple Leaf, in cooperation with the DOC, found that 45 percent of substance abusers with criminal records who completed Maple Leaf’s program didn’t commit a new offense within three years.

The shuttered Blue Spuce Inn is located in Mount Holly, a town with 1,200 residents on the edge of the Green Mountain National Forest and a 40-minute drive from Springfield.

Several years ago, the inn’s former owner turned the property over to the New England chapter of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The church has agreed to lease the property for $1 a year to the nonprofit organization that he has set up, Hunter said.

Since getting the keys to the Blue Spruce in 2010, Hunter has been working on renovations. The dining room, which features a giant stone fireplace, has been transformed into a space for group counseling sessions and where women could watch movies and listen to a player piano. “It was built as an inn to make people feel welcome. That’s the way I want to keep it,” he said.

Hunter has made it a point to involve former inmates in the renovation work. They hang drywall, paint walls and refinish wood floors. “These are human beings who have a lot to offer, but they are all someone the system has written off,” Hunter said. “I wanted to prove that people who society has thrown away have enormous gifts to offer.”

A concrete building behind the Blue Spruce has been made into a cozy three-bedroom cabin, which Hunter envisions as the living quarters for on-site residential supervisors.

The 6.5 acre parcel includes several small buildings. Hunter wants to turn a couple of them into a pottery studio and lab for computer training. He wants Blue Spruce to be a place where women can learn to become carpenters, electricians and plumbers. In the field adjacent to the inn, he envisions residents building modular homes to sell, something women did when they were housed at the former “prison farm” in Windsor. He’s also carved out space for a large vegetable garden.

But Hunter has a lot more work to do that goes beyond bricks and mortar. The Department of Corrections has yet to embrace Hunter’s vision. He lost out on a major state grant that would have given him the money to open the doors. Hunter has heard it argued that Mount Holly is too far off the beaten path. When investing in alternatives to prison, the DOC seems to prefer placing offenders in larger communities, which provide easier access to social services and jobs.

Clay Gilbert, who oversees a substance abuse treatment program for Rutland Mental Health Services, has visited Blue Spruce. “The location has its pluses and minuses,” he said. On the list of positives? “No cell phone coverage,” Gilbert replied.

Sometimes, people in treatment can benefit from less contact with the outside world. “It seems to me that detainees need to be separated from the people, places and things that got them in trouble,” Hunter said. “Anyone who knows anything about addiction thinks that it’s good to be 10 miles from Rutland.”

Baker, Rutland’s police chief, told legislators that parts of the city are battling a “serious problem” with heroin and other opiates.

What Hunter has in mind would be a “good recovery alternative to prison,” said Mark Ames, a coordinator at the nonprofit Vermont Recovery Network. “There is a tremendous lack of good housing locations for people trying to change their lives. There are people in jail cells all over Vermont who are not getting the help they need to succeed.”

Hunter estimates it would cost $28,000 a year to house a resident at Blue Spruce. With bed space for 10 to 12 women, he’s looking for roughly $300,000 in annual state funding, which could mean a savings of a half million dollars a year if the state sent 10 women from Chittenden Regional to Blue Spruce. But the math is not that simple. Vermont’s prisons are much like the state’s public schools in this respect, where a small decline in enrollment seldom translates into big savings. Fixed costs, such as building maintenance and staff, make it difficult to reduce operating expenses. In the short term, the DOC is unlikely to see much in the way of savings by funneling offenders to Blue Spruce.

It’s not just the dollars. If an offender commits a crime in the community while at Blue Spruce, the DOC has its own reputation to worry about. “DOC doesn’t want to take any hits,” said Gilbert, of Rutland Mental Health Services. “Something like (what Hunter is proposing) must be for low-risk offenders.”

The challenge is to find less-costly alternatives to prison that aren’t perceived as a threat to public safety while helping offenders put their lives together. “The DOC has a moral, financial and legal obligation to be very careful,” said former Windsor County State’s Attorney Robert Sand.

Sand, who now works for Gov. Peter Shumlin designing alternative sentencing programs for repeat drunken-driving offenders, has talked with Hunter about Blue Spruce. “I applaud his efforts,” Sand said. “We need to work harder (as a state) to find safe, secure places for people to go in the community.”

State Rep. Leigh Dakin, a Chester Democrat who has visited the site, has heard rumblings that residents in the Mount Holly area are uncomfortable with Hunter’s proposal to bring female offenders into the community. “On the human services side, this kind of reintegration into the community is very healthy, as long as safeguards and programs necessary for women to gain traction are in place,” said Dakin, the school nurse in nearby Cavendish, “The bottom line is we’re trying to get people away from incarceration.”

Pallito, the state’s corrections commissioner, has sent members of his staff to look over Blue Spruce. Along with its rural location, the DOC has safety concerns, he said. Hunter is in the process of addressing those concerns, including installation of a sprinkler system.

Ultimately, the decision to send detainees to Blue Spruce would be out of DOC’s hands, Pallito said. The state’s judges decide whether a detainee is eligible for bail or could be released to an alternative facility. “It always comes back to the judge,” he said.

Pallito recently asked the administrative office for state judges to look at Hunter’s proposal and decide whether to go to the Legislature for funding. “The pressure (to reduce detainees) isn’t going away, so the (state) needs to be creative in seeking alternatives,” Pallito said.

The commissioner was also aware that Hunter had received a cool reception from Mount Holly residents when he first brought up the idea to use the Blue Spruce as an alternative to prison. Initially, Hunter hoped to house male offenders. “I made a PR blunder,” he said

State Rep. Dennis Devereux, a Mount Holly Republican, didn’t disagree. “He didn’t get off to a good start in Mount Holly,” Devereux said last week at the Statehouse. Devereux said he supports transitional housing because it can help offenders and save taxpayers’ money. “Will wants to help people,” Devereux said. “I want to make sure it’s done right. I have constituents who are concerned. We’ll see where it comes out.”

The community has been more receptive to female offenders, Hunter said. Some residents have shown a willingness to volunteer, helping with the teaching of cooking and parenting skills.

If it all comes together, the former roadhouse could put women on the road to a better life.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@valley.net.

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