State seeks town to host proposed prison work camp

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(Host) Two years ago the Governor proposed building a new prison work camp in Vermont to help relieve overcrowding and the cost of housing so many prisoners out of state.

State officials have been trying to interest towns in hosting the camp, but as VPR’s Steve Zind reports, it’s been a slow process.

(Zind) The Department of Corrections has received high marks for the way its been working with communities to interest them in hosting a prison camp for non-violent, low risk offenders, but the state has yet to find a willing taker.

Swanton voters have rejected a work camp. So has Springfield. The most recent setback came in Randolph. Confronted with a petition drive, the Randolph select board has decided not to move ahead with discussions with the state.

Corrections Commissioner Robert Hoffman says the challenge his department faces is allaying fears about public safety and convincing communities that it would be beneficial to host a work camp.

(Hoffman) “The main benefit is employment. That we’d be employing something a little shy of 50 people with well-paying state jobs that come with a very generous benefits package and that would afford local residents employment opportunities. There are also purchases that go on that many of them are locally based purchases.”

(Zind) Phyllis Forbes is a former Randolph select board member. She helped spearhead the drive to keep the work camp out of Randolph. Forbes says her group researched towns in other states that have hosted a correctional facility. She says the results don’t support the corrections department’s claims.

(Forbes) “Jobs did not materialize because jobs go to the people who are most qualified, not the people who live in a specific town. Vendors usually sell their supplies to the state by a competitive process and you don’t have to live in Randolph to sell the work camp the paper towels they might need.”

(Zind) Corrections officials also say the host community would benefit from work done by the inmates who perform community service projects in the local area. Forbes counters by citing a conversation she had with a builder in St. Johnsbury, where the state’s only work camp is located.

(Forbes) “I spoke with a contractor who’s quite irate because he feels that they’ve under cut him in their labor costs and that people have actually lost jobs in St. Johnsbury.

(Welch) “This is probably one of the most successful models that I’ve seen in all my years of working in municipal government. It’s a model that provides a benefit to the folks that are incarcerated, it provides a benefit to the community.”

(Zind) That’s Mike Welch, St. Johnsbury Town Manager. Welch can recite a long list of community projects performed by work camp inmates there.

He’s had some practice because he’s been talking to officials in other communities about the benefits of the work camp – and he disputes Forbes’ claim that the camp might not create local jobs.

(Welch) “The folks that run the program are from this area, the supervisors are from this area, the people that do maintenance work there are from this region, so there certainly are jobs associated with it, but I think the bigger benefit is the work performed by the inmates.”

(Zind) Corrections Commissioner Rob Hoffman says the department is still hopeful about building a new work camp.

He says discussions are currently underway with several other communities.

For VPR News, I’m Steve Zind.

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