Jim Kenyon: Uniform Improvements at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility

Sunday, April 05, 2015
Forget about orange being the new black. Three years ago, Vermont’s sole prison for women was in such sorry shape that inmates weren’t even issued uniforms, orange or otherwise.

Inmates at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington had to supply their own clothing, which could be problematic if they didn’t have family or friends on the outside to outfit them. Or if they were trying to get by on the $1.50 a day they got paid for working on the inside.

As it turns out, the failure to provide inmates with basic necessities, uniforms among them, was only the beginning of Chittenden Regional’s shortcomings.

In February 2012, seven Vermont organizations that work with incarcerated women put together a 10-page report on the “disturbing conditions” at Chittenden Regional.

On the day the report became public, the prison’s superintendent resigned.

The report pointed out that the facility wasn’t originally intended to be used as a prison at all. It was built in the 1970s to temporarily hold up to 88 detainees, who were mostly awaiting trial. Forty years after opening, Chittenden Regional didn’t have nearly enough toilets for 155 women, its average daily population in 2012. Handicap access was another problem. An inmate who used a wheelchair had made it out to the yard only once in six months.

With each inmate costing Vermont taxpayers nearly $80,000 a year, the Department of Corrections could hardly claim that Chittenden Regional’s troubles stemmed from insufficient public support.

Last Monday, I took a tour of the prison with current Superintendent Ed Adams. I didn’t know it then, but representatives of the nonprofit groups that brought Chittenden Regional’s distressing conditions to light three years ago had made plans to meet with Adams and DOC Commissioner Andy Pallito a couple of days later.

I guess they were also wondering how the state was doing on its promise to make Chittenden Regional something more than a decaying warehouse where a majority of the women are serving time for drug-related crimes.

Adams, who came aboard in September 2013, told me that many of the problems outlined in the 2012 report have been addressed, including providing inmates with uniforms. (In case you’re wondering, they’re navy, teal and khaki, not orange.) But Adams acknowledged that there’s room for improvement. He singled out the kitchen and health clinic as examples of “where the building is showing its age.” And a program that teaches computer skills to help women land jobs when they get out has been slow to get up and running.

Why does any of this matter?

Partly to make sure taxpayers are getting their money’s worth. Last year, Chittenden Regional’s total expenditures came to $13.4 million, or $81,000 per inmate. At the state’s six prisons for men, the average cost was $60,517. (Nearly 500 men were also locked up in private out-of-state of prisons that cost about $26,000 per inmate.)

One reason that Chittenden Regional is by far the state’s most costly prison on a per-inmate basis is lack of “economy of scale,” said Adams. There are also medical expenses not found in men’s prisons. Last month, Chittenden Regional was housing six inmates who were pregnant.

Dolly Fleming is executive director of Mercy Connections, a Burlington nonprofit organization that mentors incarcerated women. She’s part of the group behind the 2012 report. She’d still prefer Vermont find alternatives to putting nonviolent offenders behind bars, but came away from last Wednesday’s meeting thinking that Chittenden Regional is moving in the right direction with Adams at the helm. Adams, 44, seems to have a “genuine desire to improve the culture of the facility,” she told me. “He’s created a calmer environment.”

Adams’ way up the DOC ladder included a stint as a parole officer, which I imagine gives him a better understanding of the challenges — finding a decent job being at the top of the list — that former inmates face on the outside.

He’s also changed the prison’s approach to substance abuse, which often plays a role in women winding up at Chittenden Regional in the first place. He ramped up random drug testing to 100 inmates a month. A year ago, 38 percent of inmates were failing their tests. In the past, that meant they automatically went into the “hole,” prison jargon for solitary confinement, for five to 10 days. During that time, inmates are kept in their cells for 23 hours a day.

With more than one in three women failing their drug tests, the threat of being sent to the hole “didn’t seem to me to be that effective of a deterrent,” said Adams.

Now, after failing a drug test, an inmate is offered a deal: Quickly admit to using and you can avoid solitary confinement. Instead inmates go temporarily into a cell block with other drug offenders where privileges are restricted. (Women caught dealing drugs — “trying to make a quick buck off somebody else’s addiction,” as Adams put it — still face solitary confinement.)

Along with confessing, inmates must agree to meet with a substance abuse counselor from Phoenix House, the nonprofit organization that provides treatment services inside the prison. That can be a first step to recovery.

“They are making sincere efforts to do alternative things,” said Fleming, voicing an often-heard concern that solitary confinement can take a serious toll on someone battling mental illness.

Chittenden Regional’s monthly failed drug test rate is down to 16 percent, less than half what it was a year ago. Adams doesn’t pretend the less punitive, more therapeutic approach is the only reason, but the results are “what I’m most proud of,” he said.

Even more than inmate uniforms.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com

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