Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark isn’t shying away from the controversy created by his proposed “Liberty Mill Justice Center” in Bellows Falls.
But in introducing the project to a group of state lawmakers on Jan. 14, Clark also sounded like a man who believes he’s gotten a raw deal.
For one thing, he believes media coverage has focused too much on the detention-center aspect of the project and not enough on the many other services proposed for Liberty Mill.
Clark also told the House Corrections and Institutions Committee that he went public with the proposal last year because he was asked to — not because he had all the answers.
“It’s a concept at this point. Now we’re working on the planning. We’re working on solidifying the funding. We’re working on all of that,” Clark said. “They make it sound like I have this formal plan, and I was ready to open the doors tomorrow. But I’m still developing it.”
His point — that there is a lot of work left to do — was seconded by the committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield.
“You were not ready for prime time, but you were being asked to come into prime time. And it’s being developed as we go along,” Emmons said. “There may need to be some state ... legislative work in this in terms of addressing statutes, as well. And we’re not even at that point.”
The sheriff is proposing a transformation of the former Chemco building at the junction of the Saxtons and Connecticut rivers in Bellows Falls. The 57,000-square-foot space would house a long list of facilities including regional emergency-dispatch services; regional training space for law enforcement; an expanded sheriff’s department headquarters; and support services for former prison inmates who are returning to the community.
Other proposed occupants, though, have been much more controversial.
Clark foresees the justice center housing state and federal detainees who are awaiting trial, along with state offenders awaiting sentencing. There also would be “transitional housing” for those who recently have been released from prison.
Clark has pitched the center as a mechanism for prison reform and social change. He cites long-standing problems with prison overcrowding and recidivism, not to mention the high costs associated with sending pre-trial suspects to prison to serve time alongside convicted offenders.
“Our criminal justice system is broken, and we keep lying to ourselves,” Clark told committee members. “We’re arresting the same people over and over again ... corrections doesn’t correct a thing.”
The Justice Center could offer housing and transportation efficiencies, Clark argues. He also believes it makes sense to provide skills training, case management, and other services to those leaving prison in order to reduce the chances that they’ll return to incarceration.
“We need to make (services offered to released inmates) more comprehensive — hence my proposal for a full justice center,” Clark said. “I get it — the community focuses on the detention aspects. But that’s only one small part of it.”
Clark has drummed up some backing for his plan; a number of support letters are posted along with detailed project information at www.justice.windhamcountyvt.gov. But there also have been many concerns about the justice center’s potentially negative impacts on Bellows Falls’ safety, image, and tax base; some residents even have suggested that at least a few residents will relocate if the center comes to fruition.
“I’ve received calls and emails on all sides of the issue,” said Windham County Sen. Becca Balint, a Brattleboro Democrat who attended the Jan. 14 House committee hearing. “Some are very much in support of the project — even people within Bellows Falls. And also, as you know, tensions are running high.”
Balint asked Clark to name a few popular misconceptions about the justice center proposal. He cited the center’s appearance: It will be “building secure” rather than “site secure,” he said, meaning there won’t be any big external fences, guard towers, or floodlights.
“The idea is that it would look like a modern office building,” Clark said.
The sheriff also objected to the notion that federal detainees — who would be placed at the center via a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service — will be “wandering the streets” of Bellows Falls. Those detainees will be housed on a secure floor and won’t be eligible for electronic monitoring or work release, Clark said.
“It’s not a prison ... this isn’t even a jail,” Clark told lawmakers. “A portion of it — and only a small portion — will provide detention, which is people pre-trial. They’re still innocent under our Constitution.”
Emmons offered support for that concept, and she noted that criminal suspects who have been released on bail already are living in the community. “You know what? They’re wandering the streets right now and you don’t know it,” she said.
Clark also addressed the $22 million project’s financing and operational costs. He told lawmakers that the justice center would be created by a private entity through the federal New Market Tax Credit Program; the sheriff’s department will lease it for at least seven years.
Operational costs will be covered “utilizing funds that are currently being spent on both in-state and out-of-state prisons,” the sheriff’s department says. Clark told committee members that, “if it does not work financially, we cannot do this. It’s no different from any other contract we do.”
While Clark fielded several other questions and comments, his testimony served more as an introduction to the justice center concept. The timing of Clark’s visit didn’t please Rep. Butch Shaw, a Rutland County Republican and Corrections Committee member who asked why he had initially learned about the Bellows Falls proposal by reading a newspaper article.
“It was very disconcerting to me,” Shaw said.
Clark said he’s been having discussions about prison reform for several years, and the justice center concept arose from that. “I was talking about the concept with a lot of different folks,” Clark said. “And, all of a sudden, people were saying, ‘Well, you’re keeping this secret.’”
So Clark said he agreed to participate in public meetings about the project late in 2015, even though he knew he couldn’t yet answer all questions about the proposal. “It became lose-lose for me, because I wasn’t necessarily ready to do that,” he said. “But I did what the public asked me to do, which was bring it forward.”
It’s clear that much work remains before a justice center becomes reality. At the state level, lawmakers said Clark must work closely with the Department of Corrections. And officials also said there are more discussions needed in the community.
“Underlying a lot of this are issues of trust, which always come into any discussion that occurs with the corrections population,” Emmons said.
The committee chairwoman seemed generally supportive of Clark’s concept, though she did not endorse it. She also wondered at one point whether the plan might be too ambitious.
“I hope you’re not thinking of biting off too much for what you can chew. Sometimes it’s better to start small and work up,” Emmons said.
Clark replied, “Sometimes, you’ve just got to put it all out there.”