St. Johnsbury as the womens’ prison, and not St. Albans?? Maybe…
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–The prison in St. Johnsbury might not close after all.
Let’s deal with that last one first because it’s the most fun. Two months ago Gov. Jim Douglas proposed closing the Northeast Regional Correctional Facility in St. Johnsbury to save money.
Needless to say, Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito, a Douglas appointee, agreed. Just last week he was on Vermont Public Radio’s Vermont Edition program arguing that, regrettable though it might be, closing the St. J pokey was the department’s best alternative in this revenue-challenged era.
But of course Pallito doesn’t want to shut down the prison. An agency boss almost never wants to shut down one of his facilities. And even as he defended the move to the House Committee on Institutions and Corrections yesterday, he sowed the seeds of possibly reconsidering it.
Among the documents Pallito gave the committee was one showing that the number of women prisoners, which had been rising sharply for several years, is now heading downward. It isn’t that fewer women are breaking the law. It’s that most of them are non-violent offenders, often drug users, who are being diverted to treatment plans instead of prison.
As a result, the jail in St. Albans, to which all the women prisoners were moved just last year, now has plenty of room. At some point in the conversations inside and outside the committee room, emerged (though not from Pallito) this idea:
Move the women to St. Johnsbury. Then bring back 100 or more prisoners now housed out-of-state and put them in the larger St. Albans facility. This could save some $3 million, according to one source (the attribution here is deliberately vague to protect the identity of sources; suffice to say that there were at least two of them). It would also save Northeast Regional for St. Johnsbury, where it is considered vital to the local economy. It also might save the House seat of Rep. Robert South, who endangered it by voting for same-sex marriage last month. South is not a member of the committee, but was invited to yesterday’s meeting. Being seen as the savior of a local facility is a political plus St. J. Being seen as the decisive vote on the marriage bill perhaps is not.
There is no guarantee, however, that the Governor will go along. Obviously, the Republican governor has no interest in helping the Democratic representative. He seems at least as interested in reducing the state work force as in saving money. And he has been friendly toward the private corrections company that runs the out-of-state prisons, and that also contributes generously to his campaigns.