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Report decries state of Vermont women's prison

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Advocacy groups joining to report on conditions in Vermont's only women's prison said Wednesday they had found worms in the showers, too much or too little heat in parts of the building, and a lack of the job training and other programs promised when female inmates were moved from St. Albans to South Burlington.

"It's really important in that kind of environment to have programs and opportunities to expand your vistas," said Marybeth Redmond, who coordinates a writing program at the prison. They existed at the Northwest State Correctional Facility, where the women were housed previously, but not at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, where they are now.

"They are in despair" over not having enough to do, Redmond said of the 138 female inmates. "It's not that there should be a cushy setup for them," just the programs that were promised when they were moved.

Legislators from Chittenden County were joined by leaders of the advocacy groups at a news conference Wednesday, following release of the 10-page report, titled, "Reclaiming Lost Ground for Vermont's Incarcerated Women: The Disturbing Conditions at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility."

Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito said many of the problems pointed to in the report are being or have been corrected. Problems with heat and hot water will be corrected with the replacement of the boilers in the roughly 40-year-old prison this summer. Doing the work sooner would involve shutting the boilers down during heating season, he said.

Maintenance work was under way to get rid of the worms and sewer flies around the shower drains, he said, adding that those problems occur in other Vermont prisons as well. He said construction work was beginning this week on a $500,000 series of upgrades to the facility.

The move of women from the St. Albans to South Burlington was the third in eight years and came as Gov. Peter Shumlin's administration said it wanted to reduce prison populations and make greater use of programs in which inmates — especially women — would work or take classes outside prison as they prepare for full re-entry into the community.

The women's latest move came about six months ago, and Pallito said settling them into their new location was still a work in progress. "We've had some successes, but we still have some work to do," he said.

Progress was being made toward overall goals, including reducing the female inmate population from more than 170 late in the last decade to fewer than 140 now, he said.

He also accused the advocacy groups of blindsiding him and his staff. "I thought we had a spirit of cooperation going but sending out a white paper with that title and then doing a press conference doesn't feel very cooperative," the commissioner said.

Among some of the problems listed in the 10-page report were that women were given uniforms in St. Albans, but not in South Burlington, with the result that some lack needed clothing or shoes suitable for the weather. Prisoners have fewer job-training opportunities or paid jobs within the prison. They've lost the automotive, construction and print shop training programs they had a St. Albans.

Also, women working or taking classes outside the prison are required to live in a unit where they are segregated from the rest of the population. There are a reduced number of caseworkers and what the report called inadequate mental health services.

Information from: The Burlington Free Press, http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com