Children’s safety at the fore at DOC meeting on transitional housing

By Cynthia Prairie
©The Chester Telegraph — 2014

The safety of Chester’s children was the main concern expressed by many of the 50 residents who turned out last Thursday to hear from three officials with the state Department of Corrections on how it chooses a home and inmates to take part in transitional housing programs that places them in a community prior to parole.

From left, Joe Sampsell, Rae Hirst and Derek Miodownik of Vermont's Department of Corrections gave a presentation on transitional housing of inmates. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

From left, Joe Sampsell, Rae Hirst and Derek Miodownik of Vermont’s Department of Corrections gave a presentation on transitional housing of inmates. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Concerns have been heightened by the recent placing of two inmates in a house on Main and Pleasant streets, across from the Sunoco Station in Chester. It’s near neighborhoods and between the two public schools which puts, as Green Mountain School Board chair Alison DesLauriers said, “550 children within a half-mile of that house.”

Kathy Goodell added that there are also two day-care centers nearby, and said, “We were told it would not be in town, it would not be near children.”

Derek Miodownik, of the Community and Restorative Justice central office in Williston, appeared before the crowd with Joe Sampsell and Rae Hirst, of the Probation and Parole district office in Springfield. At times they explained policies and practices to clear up confusion and misconceptions that had continued since plans to open a transition house were made public back in May.  At other times, they weathered harsh criticism that residents’ opposition to the placement won’t change the plans, that early plans and requirements changed and that there was not more public input before the house was opened.

The three acknowledged that there had been miscommunication from Corrections to the Restorative Justice Center, which went before the Chester Select Board in May seeking a letter of approval. The board took no action on the request and it was later learned that the center did not need approval but only an acknowledgment that the select board had been informed, had a chance ask questions and get answers.

Miodownik said his organization “can’t be successful without active” community participation. He added that the DOC set up this public meeting to explain the process of “furloughed supervision,” adding that its purpose is to “enhance safety so that folks approved can come out (of prison) with a reduced risk of re-offending.” Sampsell later said, “When someone is shunned or isolated, they become dangerous…. It’s about trying to make them a productive member of the community.”

A crowd of 50 attended the session and questioned the process of establishing a transitional house.

A crowd of 50 attended the session and questioned the process of establishing a transitional house.

Sampsell said that furloughees, like the two men in the Chester home, “are the highest level that we supervise. They are transitioning out before they are on parole. … about a year before, we take a look to see how they are going to come out. Some don’t have housing. … which is one of the most difficult problems.” He added that reliable housing can mean the difference between success and  failure for a transitioning inmate.

According to the Restorative Justice Center, one of the two furloughees is a sex offender who  served nine and a half years for lewd and lascivious conduct with a child. He “did all the required programming in jail and outside,” according to Wendi Germain of the center. The other resident had served time for grossly negligent operation of a vehicle with serious bodily injury. Neither is from Chester or Springfield. Hirst also noted that no out-of-state inmates would be housed in Chester.

Checklist for selecting a transitional house

Going through a long checklist of what the state looks for in good transitional housing, Sampsell said that the residences are also investigated to make sure they are safe for DOC staff and visitors, which means no access to guns or vicious dogs. He said there is also electronic monitoring and strict scheduling for the furloughee “with consequences” for noncompliance. There is also overnight staffing.

The audience learned that some furloughees have jobs, some don’t. “We place them in vocational rehabilitation,” said Sampsell. “It’s about building some of the basic skills they need.” A furloughee who is under 23 will be required to attend the DOC’s Community High School to earn a GED if he doesn’t have one, he added.

Derek Miodownik explains the furlough process to Chester residents.

Derek Miodownik explains the furlough process to Chester residents.

Miodownik said that they are “trying to give them the skills that help them have a stable and successful household.”

Besides housing, the furloughees also are required to go to counseling, training and treatment. “If they aren’t engaged in treatment, they aren’t going out,” Sempsell said.

GMUHS board chair DesLauriers asked how the furloughees get around since all the services that they were accessing are in Springfield.

Sempsell said they can use the Connecticut River Transit, Springfield Justice Center volunteers and, if approved, their own vehicle.

But the discussion returned again to the safety of the children. Several Chester residents pointed out that children walk or bike by the transitional house on the way to school and to the pool, and that six children are let off by their school bus “right in front of the facility.”

“It’s just not a good location,” said one father. “We’ve been forced into a decision.”  Another added, “This just doesn’t seem like a very good place. My daughter walks by there.” Another resident said, “This is not what was advertised: away from schools, away from children, out of the area.”

Miodownik responded that “from a public safety perspective, more eyes are better. If you make someone feel like they are part of the community, they have a vested interest in not doing something that is harmful to their community.”

Two Rivers School Superintendent Bruce Williams complained that there had not been enough communication with the schools and the communities and urged greater engagement.

At that point Sempsell handed out the phone number for his office to keep the dialogue open: 802-885-3544.

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor for 30 years, having worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. Diana Ashworth says:

    It seems that this is being crammed down our throats, despite our feelings on the subject. It is unconscionable that there are furloughees from other towns in a facility in Chester. I can understand looking out for Chester residents who are trying to return to a life in the community, but other towns should be responsible for their own furloughees. And having a child sex offender in that location where so many children walk by – well, if something happens to a child . . . .

  2. Marilyn Mahusky says:

    As much as I don’t like the current location of the transitional housing for sex and other violent offenders, I appreciate your balanced reporting of the meeting. Keep up the good work!

  3. Olga carey says:

    Unbelievable! I was not able to attend this meeting due to my father’s unexpected passing, but this is unacceptable. We were told that it would not be near children and now, right in between 2 schools and daycare and “550 children with in a half-mile of that house”, sits the “highest level that we supervise” including a “sex offender … for lewd and lascivious conduct with a child.” You’ve got to be kidding me. How would anyone think this was a good plan? And this is to try to see if these people can make it out on parole without re-offending. I also wonder what needs to happen to determine that they cannot make it on parole. Where is the concern for our children? I wonder if Mr Sampsell, Ms. Hirst, and Mr. Miodownik would be be comfortable with this in their neighborhoods and around their children andgrandchildren. And the organization “can’t be successful with out active community participation?” Exactly when was the community consulted at all? And now they want participation? I’ll put my participation right after where they apparently put the safety of my children. I certainly do not think this was a well thought-out plan and all involved should be ashamed!