Springfield prison plans benefit before opening

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(Host) The first inmates are scheduled to arrive at the new Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield in early October. It cost $27 million to build the prison, and officials are now hiring staff and inspecting construction and security systems.

Next month, they’ll be asking local citizens for a little help, as VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Keese) If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to hear a prison door slam shut behind you, here’s a chance to find out. The new Correctional Center in Springfield is inviting the public to spend a night in jail.

For a modest fee that will benefit the Springfield Center, volunteer prisoners will be booked, finger printed, issued jump suits and escorted to the cafeteria for a dinner party. Between dinner and room inspection the next morning, they’ll experience aspects of life under lock and key.

Keith Tallon is the superintendent at the new jail:

(Tallon) “By duplicating the offender day, then we’ll be doing a lot of movement throughout the facility. And that’s the biggest thing we have to test. The time frame it takes to move a block of offenders through the institution for instance, the time we need to allot for adequate eating time, so that we know exactly what we’re gong to be dealing with when the offenders arrive.”

(Keese) The temporary inmates will be breaking in some of the most sophisticated prison technology anywhere. The double, 12-foot, razor-wire-topped fence surrounding the low gray concrete complex is equipped with sensor cameras activated by the slightest disturbance. With the volunteers as guinea pigs, prison staff will check the placement of cameras and personnel tracking systems throughout the facility. They’ll even put the plumbing to the test.

Superintendent Tallon says the real prisoners at the 350 bed facility will fall into several categories. First, the prison will replace the old Woodstock jail as a pre-trial detention center for Windham, Windsor and Orange counties.

(Tallon) “Then we also have a role, we have a very large medical facility here on site. So we’re going to be serving a statewide role for medical housing and also for medical services. So offenders who have acute medical needs may be placed here for a time. And then we also have a unit that’s designated for mental health offenders, people in need of mental health services.”

(Keese) The Springfield site will also specialize in behavior modification for difficult inmates. It will house rehab programs for inmates with special problems, like substance abuse or sexual aggression.

To handle all these services, the Corrections Department has been hiring since last spring. The prison is expected to employ 135 people – from guards, social workers and medical staff, to food service and maintenance.

Employment prospects played a big part in convincing local citizens to host the prison. The Springfield region has the highest unemployment rate in the state. At a recent job fair at Springfield High, 63 people took the test for entry level corrections officer positions.

(Tallon) “We’re pretty competitive as to what we can offer for salary, benefits and then the opportunity for advancement. So it’s an exciting opportunity for someone that wants a career.”

(Keese) Randall Hodge of Bellows falls was one of the applicants who returned for an interview. Hodge, whose job at Ben and Jerry’s is being eliminated, says working with criminals doesn’t seem too intimidating.

(Hodge) “As long as you’re not mean to them or something like that, I think it’d be a pretty decent job. Make a career out of it, you know, start out here on the bottom level, work your way up through the ranks.”

(Keese) Recruits will undergo an intensive four-week training. On the job, they’ll shadow more experienced workers who’ve transferred from elsewhere in the state’s corrections system.

Participants in the overnight fundraiser – there’s also a dinner only option – will enjoy some perks not even the best-treated prisoners can expect. The 10:00 p.m. lock down will be followed by movies and dancing to a live band.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Springfield.

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