In a letter sent to state legislators, the ACLU is urging lawmakers to reject a Scott administration request for a $15.5 million downpayment on prison construction to replace and expand the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF). The administration’s initial price tag for the project is $71 million, though according to the administration’s own estimates, total costs are likely to far exceed that amount.
The proposal does not include any options for smaller, lower-cost, community-based programs, or account for further reductions to Vermont’s prison population through criminal justice reform, as the ACLU and other stakeholders have advocated. Proposals to replace additional prison facilities could cost taxpayers half a billion dollars or more.
ACLU of Vermont Executive Director James Lyall: “The people of Vermont want to invest in people, not prisons. We want investments in affordable housing, childcare, public education, and other priorities that are essential for community well-being. By contrast, this fiscally irresponsible plan disregards Vermonters’ views and values and jeopardizes the tremendous progress we have made in reducing our overreliance on incarceration. Vermont taxpayers should know that there are lower-cost alternatives to a massive and unnecessary expansion of Vermont’s prison system that can serve the needs of incarcerated people sooner and better than this plan allows. State lawmakers should reject this proposal and continue the progress they have made in creating a smarter, fairer, and more humane justice system in Vermont.”
The ACLU’s letter notes, “The people of Vermont have voiced ‘strong, consistent, and broad-based support’ for criminal justice reform—and four in five Vermonters support community-based alternatives to incarceration. In response, policymakers have worked to reduce Vermont’s prison population by approximately forty percent from its peak over a decade ago—and there is still more we can do to reduce incarceration further, through evidence-based policy reforms and investments in community-based programs.”
The proposal advanced by the Department of Buildings and General Services (BGS) would replace CRCF with a new facility featuring 155 “secure” beds, and 30 lower security “re-entry” beds. The administration has estimated that new secure prison beds will cost $800,000 to $900,000 per bed, suggesting project costs well over the $71 million that has been cited in testimony. Though roughly 100 people are incarcerated at CRCF currently—nearly half of them detained pre-trial, not having been convicted of a crime—the plan calls for building a new prison facility with nearly double that capacity.
Women’s Justice and Freedom Initiative Executive Director Ashley Messier: “It’s a backwards approach to spend a decade and tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to build an enormous prison when we could better meet people’s needs much sooner if we consider alternatives—which we have been asking legislators to study and support for years. Outcomes for incarcerated people and their families will not improve unless we invest in the communities they return to, including re-entry programs, job support, and other services that help people rebuild their lives. These are the services that people incarcerated at CRCF are asking for—and they deserved to be listened to.”
While much of the planning process has focused on replacing CRCF, proposals advanced by consultants go far beyond that one facility. The ACLU’s letter observes, “If the state were to move forward with the proposal to replace multiple facilities with more than 800 new beds, costs could run to an additional half a billion dollars.”
ACLU of Vermont Advocacy Director Falko Schilling: “We all are concerned by the deplorable conditions in CRCF, but this plan would take much longer, cost much more, and be much less effective in addressing those concerns than the many available alternatives. There are many things the legislature can and should do today to better address the needs of people in Vermont’s prisons—options that do not require a bigger prison, impose such exorbitant costs on taxpayers, or force the people in our prisons to wait nearly a decade longer to experience meaningful change.”
The ACLU and partners, including then-Attorney General T. J. Donovan voiced similar concerns when plans for expanding the state prison system were announced in 2019. Stakeholders have urged legislators to continue reducing the prison population and study lower-cost programs—particularly for people in CRCF, an estimated 80 percent of whom have complex histories of trauma and abuse, and nearly half of whom are held pretrial, many because they cannot afford bail. Those concerns were not well received in legislative oversight committees, where one legislator responded, “They can rot. And I don’t feel sorry for them.”
Vermont has since passed several transformative criminal justice reforms and as a result now incarcerates hundreds fewer people than it did in 2019, with new bail and sentencing reforms under consideration. And yet, plans to expand Vermont’s prison system have continued to move forward with minimal public input.