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Jim Kenyon: Hartford DOC veteran seeks a new path for incarcerating women in Vermont

  • Bill Soule, project manager with the Vermont Department of Corrections, at the Hartford probation and parole office in White River Junction, Vt., on Friday, June 4, 2021. Soule, who has worked for the Vermont DOC for more than 40 years, was put in charge of implementing changes regarding how the state treats incarcerated women and those reentering the community. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 6/5/2021 9:49:21 PM
Modified: 6/5/2021 9:49:20 PM

After graduating from Hartford High School in 1980, Bill Soule quickly concluded that college wasn’t for him.

When he returned home after less than a year at what was then Lyndon State College in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, Soule’s father let him know that he needed to find employment — pronto.

Scanning the Valley News’ help wanted ads, the younger Soule saw a Sunoco station in Woodstock was looking for someone to pump gas at $4.25 an hour. But when Soule stopped by the station, the owner didn’t think he was cut out for the job.

The business across the street, however, was hiring, the owner told him. Soule rang the doorbell at the Woodstock Regional Correctional Facility.

Two days later, the then-19-year-old Soule began working as a correctional officer — for an hourly wage slightly below what the gas station was paying — at the Woodstock jail, which the state closed in 2002.

In the 40 years since he started with the Vermont Department of Corrections, or DOC for short, Soule has done every job from prison guard to women’s prison superintendent.

In 2006, he took over as district manager at DOC’s probation and parole office in White River Junction, which supervises 600 offenders in Windsor and Orange counties. (Earlier in his career, Soule was a probation officer.)

The 59-year-old Soule seemed a solid bet to finish out his DOC career in the administrative position he’d held for 14 years. Then the phone rang at his Hartford home one evening in January.

Interim DOC Commissioner Jim Baker wanted Soule to run point on implementing much-needed changes at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, the state’s only prison for women, in South Burlington.

For nearly a decade, Chittenden Regional has made news for all the wrong reasons. In 2012, several Vermont nonprofit social service organizations issued a 10-page report that detailed the prison’s unsanitary conditions, including not enough toilets for 155 women jammed into a facility built to hold less than 90 people.

Since 2012, Chittenden Regional has gone from bad to worse. It’s had seven superintendents in nine years.

In December 2019, the Burlington weekly Seven Days reported claims of sexual abuse and other staff wrongdoings inside the prison, prompting state lawmakers to call for an independent investigation.

Vermont’s largest law firm, Downs Rachlin Martin, which conducted a yearlong inquiry, issued an in-depth report last December that found a “disturbing degree” of sexual misconduct and a litany of other problems plaguing the prison.

Hence the commissioner’s call to Soule.

Baker, who spent 30 years with the Vermont State Police before Gov. Phil Scott asked him to take the helm at DOC in January 2020, had met Soule only a few times. But in a Zoom meeting of upper-level DOC administrators during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Baker was impressed with what Soule had to say about the challenges often facing female offenders.

“I think I’ve found my guy,” Baker said to himself.

“Bill has a great reputation among his peers and in the community,” Baker told me Friday. “It’s one of my better choices since I got here.”

At first, Soule wasn’t sure he wanted the assignment. He’d grown comfortable working in his hometown in a job that paid $102,000 a year with a staff that he’d handpicked.

After getting off the phone with Baker, Soule spent the evening poring over the law firm’s report, which came with 17 recommendations, ranging from enforcing DOC’s zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment to building a new women’s prison in a different community.

“It was an opportunity to go in and make some changes, but I also knew that some of what the report was recommending would tick people off,” Soule told me. (For starters, Downs Rachlin had urged DOC to seek legislative changes that would allow for mandatory, random drug testing of prison employees.)

After mulling it over for a couple of days, Soule accepted the job.

“I realized that maybe I had some unfinished business in my work with women offenders,” he said.

Charting a new course

In 2001, Soule had been named superintendent of the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor. Two years later, then-Gov. Jim Douglas announced the Windsor facility was being converted into the state’s only prison for women.

Soule embraced the move. Instead of a human warehouse where inmates bided their time until their sentences were up, he envisioned the facility, which once served as the state’s prison farm, as a place that could prepare female offenders for future jobs in the trades.

“Bill debunked all the myths that caring folks couldn’t do well in corrections,” said Mike Coxon, the retired superintendent of the Windsor prison where Soule was his second-in-command for eight years. “But don’t get misled that he’s soft. He treats inmates fairly and he’s always willing to listen to what they have to say, but he draws lines.”

Once in Windsor, female inmates were given an opportunity to build modular homes, gaining hands-on experience as carpenters, plumbers and electricians. “When women were released I didn’t want the only thing on their resume to be that they’d learned how to make license plates,” Soule said.

But after Soule left in 2006, DOC changed course, eventually transferring the state’s female inmates to Chittenden Regional in 2011. With many of the women from the Burlington area, DOC argued they’d benefit from being closer to their families.

A decade later, the Legislature seems on board with Downs Rachlin’s recommendation to mothball 50-year-old Chittenden Regional. The cost of a new facility is estimated at upward of $60 million.

Soule is among the DOC leaders advocating for not building a traditional prison. As Baker put it on Friday, the DOC culture is shifting from a “punitive system to a more supportive system.”

The vast majority of Vermont’s incarcerated women are nonviolent offenders, whose crimes can often be traced back to struggles with substance use or mental illness.

“We don’t need a facility with a high fence and barbed wire,” Soule said.

He’d like to see Vermont go in the same direction as Maine. At the 64-bed Southern Maine Women’s Re-Entry Center in Cumberland County, the focus is on helping women transition back into the outside world through educational classes and job training. During the last six months of their sentences, some offenders work in the community during the day and return to the center at night.

“It’s not about being soft on crime,” Soule said, “but recognizing that 95% of people who are incarcerated will eventually be back in the community.”

In Vermont, most women are serving sentences of five years or less. But much of what happens in Vermont’s criminal justice system is outside DOC’s control. Lawmakers, judges, prosecutors — and ultimately the public — must favor rehabilitation over punishment.

Changes now

Whatever the state builds, it likely won’t open for six years or so. In the meantime, “we need to improve the quality of life for the staff and the women incarcerated” at Chittenden Regional, Soule said.

After touring the prison, Soule recommended DOC start small. To help women eat more healthy foods, a salad bar with fresh vegetables was added to the cafeteria.

Prison workers are undergoing additional training to improve communication and de-escalation skills, a recommendation made in the Downs Rachlin report.

“You can open a new facility, but if you have the same culture, it’s not accomplishing anything,” Soule said.

The Legislature nixed the report’s recommendation of mandatory drug testing for prison staff. The state, however, is putting up money to equip correctional officers with body cameras — providing the union that represents prison workers goes along.

Body cameras can be used to verify inmates’ claims of abuse while also protecting prison employees from false accusations.

“We shouldn’t have anything to hide,” Soule said.

His work doesn’t end with Chittenden Regional. DOC supervises roughly 400 female offenders who aren’t incarcerated but who have been identified as “high-risk, high-need.”

Many of the women under DOC supervision have a lot to juggle, Soule said. Some are not only battling their own substance use and mental health demons, but also caring for children as single parents.

They’re holding down jobs, which usually don’t pay well, getting their kids to school on time and making meals.

He’d also like to see more female probation and parole officers. When he came to the Hartford office in 2006, it didn’t have any women in the job. Now four of the nine probation officers are women.

“The women (offenders) we’re working with tend to be the caregivers in their families and have dealt with trauma in their lives,” said Kathy Astemborski, who worked with Soule at the Windsor prison before joining the Hartford probation and parole staff in 2015.

Soule “understands that we have to be flexible,” she said.

In talking with Coxon, the retired Windsor prison superintendent, I mentioned Soule’s story about looking for a job in Woodstock 40 years ago.

“It’s a good thing that gas station turned him down,” Coxon said.

Good thing for Soule, and for Vermont’s corrections system.

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




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