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Vermont ACLU leader calls for rethinking prison prioritization

(The Center Square) – As a Vermont legislative panel continues a long-range look into the state’s prison system – and its facility needs – calls to rethink the state’s incarceration practices have entered the equation.

The House Committee on Corrections and Institutions recently took testimony from Falko Schilling, advocacy director with the ACLU of Vermont, on Gov. Phil Scott’s request for state dollars for future prison planning and construction.

In particular, Scott’s most recent budget proposal includes $15.5 million over the next two years for future prison planning and construction.

In his testimony before the House panel, Schilling asked that the facilities reviews include considerations for an overhauled revamp of the existing setup that would rely less on large, centralized facilities and more on smaller, community-based settings.

Much of the committee’s discussion focused on the state’s women’s correctional facility, though it did delve into accommodations for the men’s incarcerated population as well since there are parallels.

Schilling said he is concerned with the state Department of Buildings and General Services’ proposed revamp of the Chittenden Regional Correction Facility in South Burlington into a self-described women’s re-entry facility.

“That is misleading. In reality, the vast majority of the proposed facility would be traditional, secure prison housing (155 beds), while only a small portion of the facility would be dedicated to re-entry (30 beds, with the opportunity to increase that number in the future),” Schilling wrote in his testimony.

In response to Schilling’s concerns, state Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield, said there are a variety of factors that come into play as the committee considers short- and long-term solutions.

“This is not an easy discussion,” said Emmons, who chairs the committee. “There’s so many moving pieces, in terms of how you count a bed. A booking bed is not a general population bed. An infirmary bed is not a general population bed. That’s for folks who need more medical care, more geriatric care.”

During the discussion, Emmons said she believed getting bogged down in bed counts was not a way of reaching a consensus on next steps.

“I think people get so focused on a bed count that they lose track of what those beds are designed to do,” she said.

In response Schilling said, “I hear that and would respectfully push back on that a bit. We are concerned about the bed count, and what that looks like – especially when that’s tied to the population projections.”

As an ongoing analysis of prison housing continues, Schilling asked lawmakers to consider smaller, community-based facilities that, in some instances, would have less security measures in place.

Schilling conceded he did not have a number of specific details for the proposal, including where the community-based facilities would be housed.

“I’m not coming before you today with a blueprint,” Schilling said.

Conceptually, several committee members said they were supportive of the proposal.

“We really need a change in the way we incarcerate people, and the way that we prepare them to return to the community,” said state Rep. Joseph “Chip Troiano, D-Stannard. “We understand that. Getting there is part of the problem. It is a difficult position.”

According to data from the Vermont Department of Corrections, as of March 2, a total of 1,344 people are jailed within the state. The figure includes 1,113 men at instate facilities, 124 men out of state and 107 women at instate facilities.

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