Last month, I spoke before a Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee, sharing concerns raised by inmates in our Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. As the prison is in my legislative district, I felt it was incumbent to speak on the women’s behalf. I visited the institution three times in recent months, first with the Women’s Caucus, and then in response to letters received from prisoners.
During my first trip in February, it was clear myriad issues need addressing. Capital improvements are required to upgrade buildings and grounds. Originally built in the 1970s to temporarily house 80 offenders awaiting trial, over 150 women are currently incarcerated here.
If we want these women to be successful rejoining their communities, expanded therapeutic and vocational opportunities are crucial. There are complex physical, emotional and psychological issues present, exasperated by intergenerational trauma. The internal culture of the institution needs to shift to ensure prisoners are not merely warehoused but are supported with nurturing rehabilitation.
Preparing for reentry is also key. One inmate told me she had “done her time,” but was waiting for space to open up in transitional housing in Rutland. It was unclear how long she was going to have to stay in jail.
In July, I received a lengthy dossier from an inmate detailing a guard’s alleged misconduct. Included were copies of complaints filed. Accompanying this package was a short letter from the inmate’s peer-to-peer Open Ears’ Coach:
“Instead of entering into an environment that is intent on correcting negative social behaviors, she has experienced trauma. She is not alone in this. … This current process available to address staff misconduct does not work. It compromises these women’s safety and mental health; leaving them feeling unheard and without hope.”
I phoned prison Superintendent Theresa Stone and met with her and Assistant Superintendent Lori Perkins. I was told an official investigation of the complaints was done, and that, “the guard still worked here.” I then asked to meet with the Open Ears Coach who had written in her cover letter that many others are “feeling unheard and without hope.”
Assistant Superintendent Parks and I met with her and she reiterated concerns that women do not feel safe. She herself had filed three complaints and never heard back from the administration. Parks promised she would investigate since these had been filed prior to her employment. Subsequently, the assistant superintendent told me she had gotten back to the woman.
In September, I received another letter. In it, various issues were detailed: “lack of outside recreation … being out of stock of several medications such as antibiotics, antidepressants, and suboxone … and understaffing.” The inmate claimed she was physically assaulted by a guard and filed a report.
With the receipt of this second letter, I emailed Department of Corrections Commissioner Michael Touchette asking for a meeting. He emailed me right back, “If you have information about a lack of safety for women at CRCF, I’d prefer to hear about it now, so we can address any immediate issues.” He sent along his cell number and we spoke on the phone.
I appreciate the commissioner as well as the superintendent and assistant superintendent for their responsiveness. In separate conversations, both the commissioner and superintendent mentioned more trauma-informed training was needed for guards. This seems imperative. Furthermore, a more transparent complaint process needs to be instituted with inmates hearing back in a timelier manner.
Capital investment, therapeutic and vocational opportunities, staff training and streamlining the complaint process – we can do better. We must.