Clearing the Air on Construction of a New Correctional Facility for Justice Involved Women

I want to begin by clearly stating my gratitude for all of the advocacy groups that are working so hard to support and serve Vermont women who are currently incarcerated. This includes the Vermont Network, Kids Apart and the Lund Organization, Vermont Works for Women, the ACLU of Vermont, and the FreeHer Vermont campaign. I want to state my clear commitment to doing everything within my power to keep all of those advocates in the room and up to date as we manage the process by which we decide the future of a replacement facility for the current Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF).

I also feel the need to correct the record about where we are in that process. I serve on the House Committee for Corrections and Institutions. This is the committee within the House of Representatives that sets the capital budget by which we build and maintain state buildings through our bonding process. We are also the committee that initiates any policy changes within the Department of Corrections. Given these two charges, our committee will be involved with any design implementation for any new correctional facility. While initial planning and conceptual design has begun for a replacement to CRCF, we have not had any detailed or significant conversations about actual design.

The Capital Bill is the vehicle by which the capital budget is approved by the House and, then, the Senate. The capital budget is unique in that it is a two year budget. During the second year of a biennium, we can adjust the budget through the Budget Adjustment Act if it appears that projects are delayed and the bonds issued would be better served in another location. This is an important distinction as we discuss the process by which funds have been allocated for a new facility.

We set the capital budget of the fiscal years for 2024 and 2025 (FY24/25) last year with H.493, an act relating to capital construction and State bonding, that became Act 69 once it was signed by the Governor. With Act 69 we allocated $1.5 million in FY24 and $13 million in FY25 for the planning and design of a replacement facility for CRCF. These allocations are designated only for planning and design. Ahead of those allocations, we took testimony from The Vermont Network, ACLU, and FreeHer Vermont. This testimony included testimony from FreeHer Vermont regarding proposed legislation that would halt the design process for a new facility. The bills we considered, along with this testimony, as we prepared the capital budget during the 2023 session are as follows:

S. 14 – An Act Relating to a Report on Criminal Justice Related Investments and Trends
H. 438 – An Act Relating to a Working Group to Develop a Plan to Eliminate Incarceration
H. 795 – An Act to Creating an Earned Allowance Program

We incorporated concepts from the presentations of FreeHer Vermont into language within the capital bill and made certain to add FreeHer Vermont to an ongoing working group of various advocates that are working with the Department of Corrections (DOC) through the initial design process. To date, the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions (HCI) has not requested any sort of detailed report from that working group. We are not anywhere near the point by which design approval from the committee is required. The working group will continue to meet with DOC and all the involved advocacy groups will continue to have access to that process. That being said, the committee also made the decision to not halt the design process and gave the Department of Buildings and General Services (BGS) the authority to search for a suitable site that would house a replacement facility for CRCF. Act 69, at the time of passing, required BGS to consider state owned property for the siting of a replacement facility.

HCI has completed the Budget Adjustment Act (BAA), H.882, and voted it out of committee favorably on a vote of 11-0-0. H. 882 is currently in draft form 7.1. This means that all committee members were present and we all voted favorably. The committee is composed of 6 Democrats, 4 Republicans, and I serve as the sole Progressive vote. While considering and debating the BAA, we did not make any adjustments to the budget allotments totaling $14.5 million for FY24/25. The Governor’s proposed budget also made no changes to those allotments. Given the fact that we did not make any adjustments to that section of the capital bill, we did not take any new testimony. I have heard current estimates that a new facility will likely cost between $70 and $90 million dollars. I will note that this is far different than the $500 million price tag that has been quoted to me as what we intend to spend on construction.

We did make changes to language within the budget that pertains to the replacement facility. First, we approved the ability for BGS to also consider purchasing private land for siting a new facility and approved any such purchase during the off session when our committee is not active. BGS did not bypass any legislative process pertaining to the acquisition of land or the design process for a replacement facility. Second, we required that any land determined suitable for a replacement facility be in reasonable proximity to the existing workforce of the current facility in order to facilitate the retention and continuity of our experienced staff. Finally, we changed the date by which the Commissioner of BGS shall submit a site location proposal from January of 2024 to January 15 2025. BGS is required to support a quarterly report beginning in July, 2024 pertaining to the status of land acquisition.

HCI also now requires a report from BGS to the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions and the Senate Committees on Institutions and Judiciary regarding the feasibility of utilizing the current site of the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility as a potential location for designing and constructing a reentry facility for eligible justice-involved men following the construction of a replacement facility for justice-involved women. We have not approved, in any way, the initiation of any planning or design of such a facility. While this does indicate that we intend to proceed with replacing CRCF, it is important to realize that the current facility exists within the bounds of the Potash Brook watershed. Zoning approvals that existed when CRCF was built have likely changed in significant ways. We will absolutely need to know what limitations may now be in place once we decommission the current facility. Given the location of the site, it provides strong potential for developing alternative housing options for justice involved individuals especially those nearing the end of their sentence who would benefit from a transitional reentry facility close to employment opportunities. This is precisely the type of alternative housing the Committee for Corrections and Institutions has been asked to consider.

The entire House Committee for Corrections and Institutions is in tri-partisan agreement that the current CRCF is an abhorrent and outdated facility that perpetuates the trauma often associated with those who have become involved with our justice system. Delaying the construction of a new facility will only prolong the duration by which justice involved women are housed in those conditions. We have to be pragmatic about the fact that Vermont does not currently have the infrastructure required to implement a complete abolition of prisons. It is important to realize that there is also a lack of political agreement that abolition is possible. To illustrate this fact, I highlight the reality that only 3 of the 11 committee members were willing to commit to divesting from our use of private for-profit prisons by 2034. While we were able to convince the committee to place intent language into H. 876, an act relating to miscellaneous amendments to the corrections laws, to support and encourage that divestment, intent is not statute. This is a reliable indicator for the absence of the necessary political appetite for abolishing prisons.

I disagree with the statement that there is no such thing as a trauma-informed prison. We can absolutely design a new facility mindful of the fact that prisons, as we have known them, have undoubtedly perpetuated trauma. Early in my arrival to the State House, I am on record for indicating the very real truth that, fifty years ago, somebody sat in my seat and approved the design and construction of CRCF as perfectly acceptable. It is not, in any sense, an acceptable facility. I most certainly worry that I sit in that same seat, amidst my own hubris, convinced that we can build something better that won’t be derided as equally abhorrent fifty years from now. But I am obligated to proceed with a pragmatic understanding of the political arena that surrounds me. This, alongside with the fact that we must end our use of the current Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, will continue to inform how I arrive at these decisions.

As always, I am committed to continuing this conversation in any manner that would feel appreciated.