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Jim Kenyon: Stagecoach to the Rescue

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 2/19/2017 12:17:32 AM
Modified: 2/19/2017 12:36:57 AM

After serving 10 months in Vermont’s only prison for women, Cyndi LaPlante was released in December 2014. To stay out of prison, LaPlante must check in regularly at the state’s probation and parole office in White River Junction — 30 miles from her home in Randolph.

LaPlante, 55, doesn’t drive. She can’t rely on family and friends to get her to appointments on time.

So when all else failed, LaPlante hoofed it to a convenience store a few miles from Randolph’s I-89 South entrance ramp.

“I stuck my thumb out, and tried hitchhiking,” LaPlante told me.

When that didn’t work, she called her parole officer. “I’m not going to make it today,” LaPlante informed her.

LaPlante knew her excuse — not having a ride — wouldn’t fly in the long run. Parolees who violate their conditions of early release, such as missing mandatory group counseling sessions, can quickly find themselves behind bars again.

Finding reliable transportation is a struggle for many offenders in the Randolph area, said Kym Anderson, director of the Randolph Community Justice Center.

It doesn’t help that the Vermont Department of Corrections closed its probation and parole office in Orange County about 10 years ago due to budget constraints.

“For people in Orange County one of the biggest challenges is getting to the services,” said Bill Soule, DOC’s district manager in Hartford. “It’s tough for them because all the state services are down here.”

That’s where Stagecoach Transportation Services comes in. Stagecoach, a Randolph-based nonprofit, operates 20 or so small buses that serve 29 communities in Orange County and northern Windsor County.

Stagecoach relies on state and federal funding to cover roughly $1.5 million of its annual $2.3 million operating budget. Local communities that Stagecoach serves also contribute by allocating funds at Town Meeting.

Last year, Stagecoach provided 81,000 rides — many to workers needing an inexpensive way to get to their jobs in the Hartford-Lebanon-Hanover corridor. Stagecoach also makes daily trips to medical facilities in the Upper Valley, including a substance abuse treatment center in West Lebanon. Often, the medical care and cost of transportation are both covered by Medicaid.

Which only makes sense.

“Medicaid will pay for a person’s medical services, but if the person can’t get to the appointment, it’s a meaningless benefit,” said Jim Moulton, Stagecoach’s executive director.

A few years ago, Stagecoach added the probation and parole office in White River Junction to its list of regular stops.

“Stagecoach is a godsend for many of my clients,” Anderson said. “It’s made a huge difference in their lives.”

LaPlante being Exhibit A.

Over the years, LaPlante, who grew up in Randolph, has experienced her share of troubles. She dropped out of high school in ninth grade. At 16, she became a mother.

“I had my first drink at 18, and never stopped,” she said. At her lowest point, she was putting away 15 cans of Natural Ice beer (warm, with a straw) a day.

In the summer of 2013, her troubles came to a head. During an altercation with her partner, the 5-foot-2 LaPlante stabbed him with a steak knife. The injury was not life-threatening, but a plea deal still landed LaPlante at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington.

“He got two stitches, and I got five years,” she said.

As part of her work at the justice center, Anderson visited LaPlante in prison. The state’s 20 justice centers work to re-integrate offenders into the community. They help find housing, jobs and clothing. Transportation is another biggie.

Before being granted her furlough, LaPlante had to agree to participate in a risk-reduction program at the DOC office in White River Junction. That meant addressing her drinking problem. “I’ve only had one slip-up, and that was a year and a half ago,” she said.

After her release from prison, she was required to attend three group counseling sessions a week in White River Junction. Her only way of getting there (she quickly figured out that hitchhiking wouldn’t work) was a Stagecoach bus that left Randolph at 6 a.m. and returned to town at 6 p.m.

After finishing her two-hour counseling session, she had nothing to do and nowhere to go in White River Junction until boarding the bus in the late afternoon.

“I knew a lot of drug addicts and alcoholics from my past,” she said. “This was slippery territory for me.”

She whiled away the hours inside the probation and parole office. Not all parolees, however, are successful at resisting the temptations that come with having too much free time on their hands, both Anderson and Soule said.

Anderson went back to Stagecoach. Along with its regular bus routes, Stagecoach also operates a Dial-A-Ride program. Volunteer drivers (currently there are 14, but they could use three times that many) are paid 54 cents a mile, the federal reimbursement rate, to give lifts to people needing rides to medical appointments and shopping.

Could Stagecoach extend the service to offenders needing to get to and from White River Junction in a timely fashion? Anderson asked.

Stagecoach was happy to oblige. “The more rural you get, the more creative you have to get with services,” said Laura Perez, Stagecoach’s community relations manager.

At the moment, DOC is picking up the tab for a half a dozen offenders. It’s money well-spent.

It costs Vermont taxpayers about $62,000 a year to keep a male offender locked up at an in-state prison. For women, the cost jumps to $73,000. By my math, LaPlante’s 10-month prison stay cost taxpayers more than $60,000.

LaPlante, who is down to one trip a month to White River Junction, finishes her parole in two years. “I wouldn’t have made it without Stagecoach,” she said. “I’d be back in jail by now.”

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




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