ROCKINGHAM—With one phone call on Tuesday, Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark’s plans to locate programming and detention facilities for inmates entering and leaving the justice system appears to be dead in the water.
The decision not to move forward with locating the justice center came after District of Vermont U.S. Marshal Dave DeMag called Clark shortly after noon and told him that the federal agency could not support the Southern Vermont Detention Center for financial reasons.
And those financial reasons, DeMag told The Commons on Tuesday at press time, are linked to the one thing that Clark was unable to line up for his project: community support.
After weeks of vocal community objection, meetings, and citizen petitions, residents responded skeptically yet gladly to the news on all but one of the nearly half a dozen Facebook community pages on which the proposed project has been a focal point in recent weeks.
“We are heartened by the decision to turn away from the project,” said Charlie Hunter of Rockingham, co-founder of Rockingham for Progress (RFP), a group that galvanized to oppose the project and work toward alternative uses of the proposed building sites.
“At RFP, we very much support the idea of progressive justice reform; we just feel that this was a deeply flawed approach,” Hunter said.
Clark expressed his bafflement, saying he was “caught off guard” and “blindsided” by the content of DeMag’s message.
Community support a prerequisite
“Initially, we provided a letter to the sheriff that [stated that] within the state of Vermont, we don’t have enough beds to deal with pretrial detainees, and that if anyone were to build a prison (or detainment facility) in Vermont, we would be interested in having discussions,” DeMag said.
He said the U.S. Marshal service normally enters into agreements for beds that already exist, in a facility that is already up and running, particularly for long-term contractual agreements that require a substantial financial commitment.
Clark characterized the Marshals’ decision not to enter into a contract with the Windham County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) at any new facility or justice center as a financial one. But what that translated to, according to DeMag, was that his department will not enter into any contracts for any facility that does not have community support.
“If I were to go and fight this fight with headquarters (asking for dollars from committee-men), it would have to be on a project that was supported by the community,” DeMag said.
In the future, should a similar opportunity or project for a new facility arise anywhere in the state, DeMag said, the agency still seeks a solution to the lack of in-state beds for detainees.
“If anybody were to build a facility that met our criteria for professionalism and so forth within the state, we would want to enter into discussion with them [for beds],” he said.
DeMag said that “anyone thinking of starting up such a project in the future […] needs that community support.”
Clark had announced as recently as two weeks ago that he would be accepting a $300,000 donation that would enable him to buy property located overlooking Herrick’s Cove, at the junction of Route 5 and Missing Link Road. The detention center was originally proposed for the former Chemco building in Bellows Falls.
The sheriff, who noted that he has “said all along that [he] would not pursue any project that was not financially sound,” said that, for now, he is going to focus on the programming.
He said he has “sent an email to the advisory panel that his office will continue to move forward” with that aspect; but that at this point, the programming would necessarily be decentralized.
“Our traditional correctional system is not the most effective,” Clark said, citing the need for justice reform, “and we cannot approach justice in the way we have always approached it.”
“Sadly, there are some people in Rockingham who think they have won,” Clark said.
The sheriff warned of the double-edge of that sword: that Rockingham residents who have complained about the rise in crime in their town will likely “see criminal activity continue to go up in the community” that the project would presumably have otherwise reversed.
Storing the signs?
Social media exploded at the news on Tuesday.
On Facebook, one former resident, Mary Barber, publicly addressed Deborah Wright, another Rockingham for Progress cofounder whose work that included petitioning voters to get referendum questions on annual meeting ballots for Rockingham and Bellows Falls.
“Deb Wright, I know that a lot of people have worked hard to prevent this project,” Barber wrote. ”However, I want to take this moment to commend you on your persistence, your research, your consistency in keeping everyone informed, the time you have spent, and your unrelenting commitment to the best interests of Bellows Falls and Rockingham.”
Not everyone believed Clark’s announcement, however.
“I’m keeping my sign up,” one resident wrote, referencing RFP’s lawn signs that read, “Don’t Jail Our Future.”
Another resident noted that the “prison subject” comes up every 20 years or so and said that RFP’s signs — a fresh order of which was just received — ought to go into storage for the next time.
Hunter described a “debt of gratitude” owed to Clark.
The sheriff has “helped the town of Rockingham unite its attention upon the incredible strengths and resources of this community.” said Hunter, who expressed hope for a “strong and creative future” for Rockingham.
“We are also encouraged at the apparent willingness of the Kasser family to explore charitable donation of the ‘Highlands’ property toward projects that hold potential for the benefit of the community and region,” he added.