Vermont’s prison population exploded over the past decade. That now leaves towns to grapple with how to help inmates re-enter communities after serving their time.
Studies show ex-cons may be less likely to land back in jail if they get support services in group settings. But communities don’t always welcome lawbreakers into transitional housing.
St. Johnsbury has two residential facilities.
On a quiet street there’s a tidy gray clapboard house where four female ex-offenders live and get counseling. It’s run by Northeast Kingdom Community Action, which operates a similar residence for men. There’s a third house in Newport. NEKCA’s Corrections Programs Director, Kim Baxter, wants to find three more sites in the Northeast Kingdom. They’re funded in part by a 160 thousand dollar Corrections Department grant.
"We do not try to keep it a secret, "Baxter said on a recent tour of the women’s house in St. Johnsbury. "We do not try to just sneak something in. We like to be public. The community can be as much a resource for us as we are for them."
Baxter now has her eye on a property for rent in Kirby-a rural farming village. Word has spread, and the select board has already opposed the plan before a formal proposal is filed. Selectman Tim Peters says this scenic ridge, with only one constable, and no transportation or stores, is not the right place for furloughed prisoners.
"There’s elderly people who don’t lock their doors any time as far as I know, a lot of retirees." Peters said. "There are vacation property owners who don’t occupy the premise other than for a few months at a time. And then of course there’s plenty of families with kids all in that same area. Each particular group carries with it their own set of concerns and questions about safety and security."
The five former inmates in Kirby would not be supervised all the time. Still, Joe Patrissi says the community should not fear them. He directs Northeast Kingdom Community Action, the agency trying to expand the transitional housing program. Patrissi used to be Vermont’s Corrections commissioner. He says he has seen how the transitional hubs help offenders replace a criminal culture with healthier attitudes.
"Everybody would be much better off to support the idea that they’re gonna come back anyway, let’s have them come back with a lot of support, a lot of supervision, a lot of structure through this kind of program. So that when they actually end up back in the community, they have a nice, soft landing. They’re not homeless; they’re not anxious; they’re not looking for where the next meal’s coming from," Patrissi said.
Patrissi says it costs about 20 thousand dollars to keep an ex-offender in a group home, in contrast to the 65 thousand it costs to keep them in prison. But he also concedes that it’s not always easy to persuade small towns like Kirby to take them in. "We need to do a lot of education about this," he said before an October 2 meeting in Kirby to discuss the housing proposal.
Patrissi says the town of Hardwick appears to be open to a proposal for transitional housing. He is also considering sites in the Wells River area, as well as Essex County.