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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Lawmakers Push Corrections Reform For Mentally Ill Inmates

The Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield.
Peter Hirschfeld
/
VPR File
Shaken by a September visit to a wing for severely mentally ill inmates at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, a group of lawmakers has begun to press for reforms to the corrections system.

On a cloudless day in late September, 10 lawmakers drove to Springfield for a tour of the Southern State Correctional Facility. The experience left an impression, and legislators have begun pressing administration officials for reforms to the corrections system.

The tour of the Springfield prison took lawmakers through a special wing for severely mentally ill inmates. Legislators saw visibly agitated men pacing in their small jail cells. They saw the scratch marks on a glass window left by a troubled inmate who’d hanged himself in this prison earlier in the year.

“It’s important to begin a discussion about a very real problem. And sometimes recognizing you have a problem is the first step in solving that problem,” says Bennington Sen. Dick Sears, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “And I don’t think we have been vigilant enough as policy makers in highlighting what we saw at Springfield when we went down there.”

Lawmakers’ call to arms has come in the form of a nonbinding resolution that the Senate will take up when lawmakers return to Montpelier in January. It calls on policymakers to begin working to reduce the number of severely mentally ill inmates serving time in Vermont prisons.

The move is largely symbolic, but Sears says it’s an important first step in addressing the human rights dilemma unfolding behind prison walls.

“As we’ve de-institutionalized mental health hospitals, as we’ve de-institutionalized for the developmentally disabled, we’ve left one institution of last resort, and that is corrections,” Sears says.

"As we've de-institutionalized mental health hospitals, as we've de-institutionalized for the developmentally disabled, we've left one institution of last resort, and that is corrections." - Sen. Dick Sears

Lisa Menard, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Corrections, says her department shares lawmakers’ desire to address the problem. Menard says corrections staff often lack the specialized training needed to accommodate the needs of mentally ill inmates, and she says prisons weren’t designed to serve as psychiatric hospitals. 

“The whole Agency of Human Services has been kind of brainstorming possibilities,” Menard says.

Those brainstorming session have spawned a number of possibilities, according to Menard. One calls for the creation of a more specialized unit in an existing prison, where trained staff and retrofitted facilities would better suit the needs of the severely mentally ill.

Meanwhile, the Department of Mental Health recently sought proposals from outside contractors who might be interested in operating a secure facility for mentally ill patients.

“They got a number of different responses, ranging from existing structures to building additional structures that would be outside of facility, staffed by community members or contractors,” Menard says.

Menard says that facility could be a landing spot for mentally ill Vermonters now stuck behind bars. She says officials from across the Agency of Human Services will have to work with legislators to determine the best path forward.

"What is the most humane? What is the most cost-efficient? What is the most safe? I think that that's the next step." - Lisa Menard, Vermont Department of Corrections commissioner

“What is the best idea? What is the most humane? What is the most cost-efficient? What is the most safe? I think that that’s the next step,” Menard says.

Sears says he understands the resolution alone won’t have a direct impact on corrections policy. But he says that doesn’t mean lawmakers don’t intend to move forward with changes soon.

“I’m hopeful that the discussion begins and that we actually have some facility plans in place by the end of the next session that we can actually move on,” Sears says.

The Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee will resume its discussion about the future of mentally ill inmates at a Statehouse meeting on Dec. 14.

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