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Vermont House committee wary of plan to sell former prison in Windsor

  • The Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor, Vt., 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. Valley News File photograph — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/16/2021 4:07:26 PM
Modified: 3/16/2021 9:42:28 PM

WINDSOR — A legislative committee that oversees Vermont’s corrections system decided Tuesday to maintain state ownership of the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor, at least for now, rebuffing a proposal from the Scott administration to put the rural property up for sale.

Members of the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions unanimously voiced their desire to keep the former prison property in state hands, saying more time is needed to decide the site’s future.

“Buying property is such a difficult thing that I’m inclined just not to sell it, certainly not until we have a long-term plan for correctional facilities,” state Rep. Scott Campbell, D-St. Johnsbury, said in a committee hearing Tuesday afternoon.

Gov. Phil Scott’s budget proposal calls for the state to sell the former prison — which consists of 27 buildings over more than 100 acres — and allocate the proceeds to “future construction projects.”

But that request worried some town officials who feared the property will sit in limbo while awaiting a buyer.

Windsor Town Manager Tom Marsh said Tuesday that it’s not clear how the facility could be used by a private entity or whether redevelopment could be profitable, considering some of its structures are aging and will likely need to be torn down.

“What we really can’t have is the state walk away from the property and for it to just sit there and deteriorate,” he said, adding that state and private entities have pitched several plans since the prison closed in 2017 without any gaining traction.

The former prison, located off County Road near Interstate 91, has sat largely unused in the last four years aside from the occasional training conducted by the Vermont State Police SWAT team, with some events riling neighbors who say they aren’t always informed ahead of time.

One training earlier this month saw about 20 police cars at the property, resulting in state Reps. John Bartholomew, D-Hartland, and Elizabeth Burrows, D/P-Brownsville, asking state police to work closely with the town on such training.

“They acknowledged that communication with the town was important and that could be better,” Bartholomew said in a phone interview.

State and local leaders last year thought they found a temporary solution for the site, which also once included a prison farm, when they set aside $700,000 to renovate part of the facility in Vermont’s capital budget.

Upgrades to flooring, bathrooms, and heating and electrical systems would have allowed 17 full-time employees from the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation to relocate from the state office building in Springfield, Vt.

However, those plans never moved forward as COVID-19 cases rose and state employees left physical offices to work from home.

“It suddenly didn’t seem like relieving the pressure in Springfield was our biggest priority,” said Erik Filkorn, principal assistant for the state Building and General Services Department.

There were other problems with the relocation plan, including state employees expressing discomfort with the idea of working behind razor wire, according to Filkorn. With the future of Vermont’s physical offices still being decided, he said, “it didn’t seem as enticing a project.”

Filkorn said he’s reached out to other agencies, which also have said they don’t want the prison property. Selling the facility would free up about $215,000 a year — what it costs to maintain the site— he said.

Whatever route the state takes, Marsh said, it should include Windsor in talks about the facility’s future. He said residents have made it clear they don’t want it turned into another correctional facility or transitional housing.

“Private residential development would have the least risk,” Marsh said, adding that he’s not sure private offices or an industrial use could survive given the property’s rural setting.

Windsor resident John MacGovern, who lives near the former prison, said he would like to see it used in a way that’s compatible with the surrounding 800 state-owned acres managed for wildlife habitat and educational purposes.

An agricultural use, he said, would fit that description and be able to utilize new greenhouses and a water tower installed shortly before the prison’s closure.

“Let’s just cut bait and let’s get on with it,” MacGovern said. “But we have to be very, very careful that it doesn’t end up in a wrong use.”

While residents are ready to see a change at the prison property, Vermont’s state employees’ union is holding out hope that inmates can someday return to Windsor.

Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees Association, testified Tuesday that the property should be renovated to house Vermont inmates currently held in out-of-state facilities.

More than 160 inmates are held in a wing of the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Mississippi, operated by for-profit company CoreCivic.

The union “believes the state of Vermont needs to break its addiction to private prison companies and to supporting an out-of-state private prison company,” Howard told the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions.

He went on to say the Windsor property also could be used to house juveniles who were affected by the closure of Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center, which was embroiled in legal battles over staff use of restraints, last year.

Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield, who chairs the Corrections and Institutions said late Tuesday that she hopes to create a seven-member committee that could vet different ideas for the Windsor property. That group could include town officials and regional planners, she said.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@ vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

Update

This story was updated at 6 p.m. with committee action on the proposal.


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