“The traditional closed institution has a consistent record of failure over the last 200 years. With increasing caseloads and steadily rising costs, Vermont cannot afford programs that are proven failures and will only become more wasteful of money and human potential.”

These words were written not by some radical activist, but by Department of Corrections Commissioner Kent Stoneman in a 1972 report titled “A Comprehensive Proposal for Corrections in Vermont.”

What he and the DOC were proposing was known as the Community Corrections model. Borne from an acknowledgment of the abusive and violent nature of incarceration, the model envisioned a different type of institution with more programming, resources, and community connections overseen by what DOC Director of Planning John Perry would later describe as a “different kind of culture and management on a more human scale.”

The promises of this model, you might already be noticing, are very similar to those being used to sell the $90 million investment the DOC has requested to replace Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF), Vermont’s only women’s prison.

The inhumanity of CRCF is so widely accepted that DOC deploys it as a reason to accelerate the construction of a new prison, with Commissioner Nick Deml telling legislators “until that new facility is built, there are people living and working there (CRCF) that are going to continue to suffer.”

What is less widely understood, however, is that CRCF was actually constructed in the mid-1970s as the prototype location to implement the new community corrections model.

This should give us great pause. While today it is the epitome of the “proven failures” of “the traditional closed institution,” CRCF was actually designed and created with the same progressive vision that DOC uses to legitimate a new women’s prison today.

We can see similar dynamics in the evolution of the St. Albans prison, now known as Northwest State Correctional Facility, which opened in 1969 as a Youth Center with no locks on the doors. Superintendent Hugh Wallace outlined his vision, saying “I see institutions as damaging to anyone … Here, we’re not going to confine people for confinement’s sake. We’re going to have a place here where people can grow.”

But soon after, the Youth Center was converted into a makeshift community correctional center and a 1983 DOC report stated their goal to transform it into one of the state’s two “central closed facilities” — the kind of place Wallace described 14 years earlier as “damaging to anyone.”

As they sought to manage a growing incarcerated population in overcrowded prisons, DOC deployed a new classification tool to decide who to incarcerate in physical prisons and who to monitor in the community — what they called “jails without walls.” While Perry would later praise its “fair, equitable, and objective criteria,” the 1982 tool prioritized greater incarceration over people who were psychiatrically labeled queer, not raised by an “intact biological family” or who received government benefits. Unsurprisingly, those groups are still disproportionately targeted by state violence and incarceration today.

How can we make sense of these patterns? And how can we make sure we don’t create a new iteration of this violent history?

Abolitionist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore reminds us that when we look too closely at the prison itself, we lose sight of the work the prison does in our communities.

Looking beyond what was happening within CRCF, we can see that it opened during a period of significant change. Vermont’s population was growing and changing; poor farms and asylums were closing; farms were going bust and consolidating and factories were moving overseas; tourism, service industries and some new manufacturing were developing unevenly across the state. Some people were prospering, while many were displaced or dispossessed.

In the 1950s and ’60s, social spending on things like education, housing, health care and welfare increased to fill the gaps in rapidly changing communities. But by the early ’70s, these programs were being rolled back and were replaced — as part of a backlash to Black power and other revolutionary movements — by record investment in policing, harsher sentences and expanded criminal codes.

People who could have been supported in life-affirming ways were instead increasingly likely to be incarcerated, the prison population boomed and — despite its reformist intentions — CRCF became just the latest in a long line of abusive, violent incarcerative institutions.

Alarmingly, we find ourselves in a very similar moment today. We are over-exploited and under-resourced and our communities urgently need investment in school construction, mental health services and more. But the state is ending pandemic-era social supports, exacerbating the housing crisis and pushing more and more Vermonters into hunger, homelessness and desperation. And just like in the 1970s, increasing displacement from the rollback in social services is accompanied by a backlash against radical movements to abolish oppressive systems, leading to a resurgence in policing and numerous efforts in the legislature to harshen the criminal code.

Even setting aside these broader dynamics, it feels impossible to trust DOC to humanely and transparently implement well-intentioned reforms, considering a litany of recent failures and scandals with the grievance system, privatized healthcare, unnecessary deaths, unsatisfactory oversight and PRIN program.

With all of this in mind, it becomes evident, as we write in FreeHer VT’s recent zine, that “the new prison that DOC is trying to build is not a way out of the trauma and systemic violence of incarceration — it’s actually how we got to this present moment, and is a new version of the same problem.”


A Comprehensive Proposal for Incarceration in Vermont

Report in Vermont Corrections 1983

Improving Classification Procedures in Vermont: Applying an Interaction Model, 1975-1985

One Comment

  1. Cindy LeClair April 25, 2024 at 9:23 pm - Reply

    Every minute and dollar spent on this system is wasted and cannot be recouped. Will there be a time to really sit at the table and accept this wasteful energy and really plan a different outcome outside the box.

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