The state of Vermont has contracted with a design firm to plan a new women’s prison and reentry facility, and to possibly reconfigure the state’s prison system over a 10-year period.
In a report drafted for lawmakers in 2021, the global design firm HOK laid out options for the state to replace and consolidate some prisons and build lower-security reentry facilities.
The new contract, obtained by VTDigger, tasks the firm with detailing the size and scope of the proposed prisons and reentry facilities, which would be sited on a shared campus somewhere in the northwest corner of the state.
The agreement with HOK represents the next step in a years-long controversy over what to do with Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, the state’s only women’s prison. Past reporting by Seven Days and VTDigger, as well as a series of investigations, have documented unsanitary living conditions and an array of sexual misconduct and retaliation allegations at the site.
"Everybody agrees CRCF needs to be closed,” said Ashley Messier, executive director of the Women’s Justice and Freedom Initiative. “Where we start to differ is, what do we do after that?"
Aspects of HOK’s proposal alarmed advocates for incarcerated women and criminal justice reform during this year’s legislative session. Some testified to lawmakers that the proposed construction was far too large and that the Legislature had not adequately studied or funded alternatives to incarceration.
HOK’s 2021 proposal suggested the new women’s facility should have 194 beds — larger than CRCF’s pre-pandemic capacity of 177 beds, and substantially higher than its incarcerated population during the past several years, both before and during the Covid-19 era.
As of Tuesday morning, Vermont imprisoned 95 women.
In an interview, James Lyall, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, called the 2021 proposal “really misguided.”
“It seems to go against what many policymakers have said they're interested in doing,” Lyall said. “I don't know that all of Vermont's policymakers are aware of what's been going on in the House Corrections Committee, or how they're gonna respond when they see the results.”
In its 2021 report, HOK suggested Vermont close three facilities: Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, where the state has imprisoned women since 2011, Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland and Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans.
Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield, who chairs the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, said HOK’s recommendations are preliminary and subject to change depending on the results of the new contract.
In an interview, Emmons said her committee was set on building a reentry facility for women, but had not committed to any particular design for a medium-security facility. (HOK’s other proposals ranged from closing all the state’s prisons and consolidating them into a single, new complex, to keeping all the existing men’s facilities and only replacing CRCF.)
Emmons agreed with advocates that the initial proposal of 194 beds was “way out of whack,” she said. She expects the number of incarcerated women in Vermont to hover around 100 to 120. But Emmons said she’s also concerned about the state’s prison capacity in the future.
“Whenever you build a correctional facility, it's going to be there for 50 years at a minimum,” Emmons said. “So do you underbuild?”
Emmons said she hopes this 10-year plan will eventually mean Vermont stops sending hundreds of men to prisons out of state. She added that standard practice for planning a correctional facility is to account for roughly 10% growth in prison populations, though she expects Vermont’s prison population to remain relatively stable over the next 50 years.
Rachel Feldman, a spokesperson for Vermont’s Department of Corrections, wrote in response to questions from VTDigger that the proposed count of 194 beds was “appropriate at the time the report was submitted.”
“Vermont DOC and [the Department of Buildings and General Services] will continue to work with the legislature, watch population trends, make data-informed decisions, and collaborate with HOK. These efforts will ultimately inform the determination of the final bed count,” Feldman wrote.
The Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence — which provides support services to women at CRCF — has asked the Department of Corrections to make the facility no larger than 50 beds, according to the organization’s executive director, Karen Tronsgard-Scott.
Tronsgard-Scott is worried that if the state builds a larger prison, it will inevitably incarcerate more women, particularly if it doesn’t also fund diversion programs and other alternatives.
“If we have 100 beds, 200 beds, 500 beds — that's how many women we’ll find in prison,” she said.
Tronsgard-Scott estimated that only about a dozen women in Vermont are serving long-term sentences.
Most incarcerated women in Vermont are in prison not because of a new conviction, but because they violated a condition of supervised release. Between the 2017 and 2019 fiscal years, 85% of women entering Vermont prisons were there due to supervision violations, according to an analysis by the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
Some women are reincarcerated for infractions as minor as missing curfew, according to Messier.
The Vermont Network also testified to lawmakers this session that alongside the disagreement over bed count, they were concerned that a corrections campus — co-locating men’s and women’s facilities on the same plot of land — would present additional risks to incarcerated women.
With both facilities close together, the Network argued, women could lose gender-specific programming and staff. They also noted that if the reentry facilities are close together, and people who live there come and go for work, there could be increased safety risks for incarcerated women — many of whom have experienced sexual and domestic violence or other kinds of abuse.
Tronsgard-Scott and other anti-incarceration advocates are trying to thread a tricky needle: aiming to reduce state investments and reliance on the prison system, while also ensuring incarcerated people are housed in humane conditions.
The Vermont Network leader said she envisions a multi-pronged solution. She advocates for reducing the number of incarcerated women through long-term investments in social supports, increasing community-based services and improving the living conditions for the small group of women serving longer sentences.
“Abolishing prisons is the future, but it's not going to be in my lifetime,” Tronsgard-Scott said. “And so I can't wait until we're at this place where we think as a society, ‘Let's not have prisons.’ We have to do something now.”
Messier, who was formerly incarcerated at CRCF, recently visited a reentry facility in Maine that some lawmakers have recommended as a model for Vermont. And in some ways, that facility is promising, Messier said: The building feels more like a college dorm, and women have more freedom of movement.
But Messier still calls this approach “diet prison.”
She’s also worried that without substantial changes to Department of Corrections practices — including addressing an ongoing staffing crisis — new construction won’t really transform conditions for the women inside.
“Who do you think loses the ability to have certain visits or certain privileges because there’s not enough staff, right?” Messier said. “On top of that, we have not finished addressing a lot of the misconduct, retaliation, culture problems that we were seeing.”
The state’s current contract with HOK commissions a conceptual design. This means a broad-strokes outline of what features — for example, a gym, kitchen or infirmary — the project should have, according to Erik Filkorn, principal assistant at the Department of Buildings and General Services.
“You may start to decide where they would be in relation to one another and how they would interact, but still well short of actually showing where doors and windows and specific rooms are,” Filkorn wrote in an email.
Filkorn said BGS hopes to have suggestions of possible building sites by next spring, but there are too many variables to have a clear timeline yet.
Emmons said that while there will likely be some disagreements as a design moves through the legislative process, she doesn’t expect it to become contentious.
But advocates told VTDigger they plan to strongly oppose any new prison they see as too large, or contrary to Vermont’s other criminal justice reform efforts.
“Until they put shovel into dirt, there are still opportunities to change what we’re doing,” Messier said.
Erin Petenko contributed reporting.
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