BELLOWS FALLS >> The implementation of multi-million-dollar criminal detainee/resource facility was proposed to the town's trustees and Rockingham Selectboard by Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark on Tuesday evening.
The facility would involve the rehabilitation of the village's former Liberty Mill, also known as the Chemco building, which has been untouched for about 20 years. Clark emphasized that this center would not operate as a prison, but rather as one of the state's and possibly country's first "welcoming" facilities that helps detainees safely recover and transition back into society through a holistic approach.
"When we send someone to prison, even for a short period of time, there is a higher likelihood that they are going to recidivate and commit a new crime than if they'd never gone to jail," said Clark. "That means that we have to try something different."
Right now Clark is awaiting to hear back on a $250,000 Rural Community Development Community Initiative grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that would be matched. According to Clark, this would mainly cover a construction and finance package. If that grant is received within the next couple of months, Clark says they will move forward within six months and could expect its completion within two years after the initial grant receival. The total cost for the facility is projected between $22 and $23 million.
Nearly every chair was filled at the meeting and comments from the panel and audience were left until the end of the meeting. However, as Clark spoke, some scoffed or made comments to their peers and under their breath.
Clark has 25 years of law enforcement experience, a masters degree in Justice and Administration, a diploma from the FBI National Academy. He also is a veteran and served as the chief of police in Bellows Falls for four years. His resume is long and he explained that his criminal justice perspective has changed over the years.
"I was an advocate of 'let's arrest everyone that we can arrest and put them in jail, then society will be safer.' But 25 years later I can tell you that doesn't work."
The facility will offer programs such as assessment, case management, social services, education, veteran support, mental health and supervised visitation for non-custodial parents. Clark also would like to include unique features such as electronic monitoring, a CJIS data center, a regional dispatch center and regional law enforcement training.
He has proposed a singular location for this "building-secure" facility rather than "site-secure" space. According to Clark, this means there will be no barbed wire or chain-linked fence around the perimeter, but instead it will appear to be yet another "welcoming" business in town. The space will hold 155 beds – 120 secure for either federal or state male detainees, 20 for female detainees at either the state or federal level and 35 for those that are transitioning out or that are eligible for the electronic monitoring program. According to Clark, the ratio of case managers to detainees would be 1:15 to 1:20.
In terms of advantages, Clark believes that it will offer social and economic benefits. Some of his reasoning includes: reduction of recidivism and increase of desistance; cost deduction compared to a traditional jail or prison; 65 news jobs and improved public safety. One of the jobs Clark mentioned would include an executive position at $180,000 per year with benefits.
Safety was one of the hottest topic at the meeting. A majority of comments made from the panel and audience were regarding safety, taxes and upholding a positive image in Bellows Falls.
Clark said that jail housing in Vermont is very expensive and he think this would economically assist the state and community. He added that it cost the state $40,000 to host a male in the state of Vermont for one year and $70,000 for female detainees.
"$70,000 to make your community less safe? It's not economically viable," said Clark. His point reinforced his idea that those that are incarcerated are more likely to recommit crimes when released. He believes this facility will break that "trend" by addressing the individual's needs, such as health and mental.
"I think from the townspeople's point of view, this is really getting shoved down our throats, and I think it really needs to come to a vote sooner than later," said a resident of Bellows Falls. "This is a very small community and this is a very big project and I really think people need to have a say in this."
Clark said he could not confirm whether there would be a town vote or not. "I'm not convinced at this point, or are we obligated to take it to a town vote."
He also said that county taxes will not support the building, but it will be operated as a business. The costs per beds per day, programming and funding would go toward paying for the staff and facility. Clark said that if the project goes through, it will be leased per cost per month through an outside entity. At the seven-year mark, he says they will need to decide whether they will continue to lease or buy it as a sheriff's office.
"I get it, I understand that this is scary for some folks, it's a big and bold move and looks risky, but what we're looking to do is offer programs that have been used in other places and looking to centralize and focus them. This will make our community safer," said Clark. "No one is doing transitional housing, long-term monitoring, electronic monitoring that starts from the very first day. Everything is sort of spread-out, and what we're looking to do is use skilled case managers to stay with that person (detainee) all the way through."
Clark said he will investigate some of the requests from Tuesday night's meeting and plans to work with some officials from Westminster as well.