Justice Center to ‘move forward’ on transitional housing in Chester

ONE THE COVER:Chester residents packed a meeting of the board of the Springfield Restorative Justice Center. From left, Chester Select Board member Bill Lindsay, Chester resident Tom Hildreth, third from left, and standing, Select Board member Derek Suursoo, Chester resident Ron Patch and Chester Select Board member John DeBenedetti.

By Cynthia Prairie

At 6 p.m., following an hourlong discussion on Monday, June 16, between members of the Chester community and the board of the Springfield Restorative Justice Center over planned transitional housing for former offenders in Chester, board chairman Steve Matush said, “We are committed to this. We’ll move forward.”

Justice Center board chairman Steve Matush opens the meeting for comments.  Photos by Cynthia Prairie

Justice Center board chairman Steve Matush opens the meeting for comments.
Photos by Cynthia Prairie

With that, the board was given an update on the Chester situation from Wendi Germain, executive director of the SRJC, about a timeframe for the move – “end of the fiscal year … but not feeling like I’m going to find a house to purchase. Maybe a rental or a rent to own.” The SRJC is looking for a four-bedroom home away from children in Chester that will house three former inmates – two from Chester and one from Londonderry – and their supervisor. The other goal that Germain verbalized was a need for “more community education” about what the Justice Center does and about transitioning ex-offenders into life outside of concrete walls.

But as the meeting began at 5 p.m., Justice Center board members were taken by surprise by the number of Chester residents who turned out for its meeting. About 20 people, three of them members of the Chester Select Board, showed up, forcing the usually sparsely attended public meeting into the long hallway outside the offices of 56 Main St. in Springfield.

The board was set to get an update from Germain, who has been in discussions with Chester town manager David Pisha since mid-March and had attended four of its Select Board meetings about plans to find a home in Chester for three released inmates as they move back into civilian life. The Springfield center is one of 20 or so in the state, and handles prisoners transitioning to the outside world for southern Windsor County.

According to the daily state DOC numbers, as of Tuesday, June 17, 25 people in Chester are on probation, five are on parole and two are on “re-entry status.” That compares to 20, two and zero in Londonderry and 88, 12 and nine for Springfield.

Roy Spaulding Jr. speaks to the Justice Center board about his concerns.

Roy Spaulding Jr. speaks to the Justice Center board about his concerns. Chester Select Board member Derek Suursoo stands in the back.

But first, board chairman Steve Matush wanted to hear from those in attendance.

Chester resident Roy Spaulding Jr. said, “I think everyone is of the same opinion that we need to take care of this issue and to take care of our own.” But, he said, the scope of work as laid out by a similar proposal calls for three to six high-risk offenders who are violent. “That’s not what I understood them to be.”

Matush responded that the six ex-offenders would be “over one year,” three at a time and not all at once or even in two homes, and that it would be better to have offenders who were jailed for violent or sexual crimes to be in one place and be monitored. He added that cameras would be placed inside the home.

Germain added, “We won’t take people who” pop in and out of prison. “We take people who really want to make it work.”

Matush and others added that months of mentoring occur before someone is released into transitional housing, including COSA – Circles of Support and Accountability, which Vermont has expanded from just sex offenders to “serious and violent offenders.” Germain later explained that “serious and violent” covers a wide swath of offenses from long-term jail sentences to someone who was in a single fight to a drunk driver who was in a car accident that caused injury to someone else to more odious crimes.

John Nunnikhoven, a 77-year-old Chester resident, who, with his wife Betty, represents Church at Prison, a Christian program that provide spiritual counseling and practical help for prisoners to move into civilian life, said there is a lot of monitoring and instruction that goes into pre-release and transitioning.

From left, Betty and John Nunnikhoven and Justice Center executive director Wendi Germain.

From left, Betty and John Nunnikhoven and Justice Center executive director Wendi Germain.

While both Select Board members Derek Suursoo and John DeBenedetti said that they were there as citizens not as members of the Chester Select Board, they seemed very concerned with the Select Board’s lack of power in the process.

However Germain said the Springfield Select Board, like the state of Vermont, only approves accepting the federal grant, monitors its use and approves expanding the program. It does not however decide where the transitional houses will be placed. That remains under the purview of the individual Justice Centers.

When DeBenedetti asked, “How can one town have say over what happens in another town?” Matush suggested that the Select Board appoint someone to sit on the Restorative Justice board. During the business portion of the meeting, Matush further suggested that the board ask other towns’ Select Boards to also nominate members. (They would have to be approved by the Springfield Select Board.)

Once again Suursoo claimed that the board wasn’t given enough time to “wrap our heads around” the plan, even though Germain said she answered board questions – through town manager Pisha – in mid April.

Germain also tried to clear up some confusion over whether the Chester Select Board could just say no to the plan and put a stop to the transitional housing. “The Department of Correction originally asked (that Germain) get permission,” Germain said, later clarifying that she used the words that the DOC used but that that was a mistake, that permission was not needed. The DOC then “asked that I get a letter stating that I had informed you” of the plans, she told the Select Board members in attendance.

Select Board member Bill Lindsay said, “Wendi … said that if the community didn’t want this you would go somewhere else.” That brought a strong “No, I didn’t” response from Germain.

Again, Matush implored the Select Board members to work closely with the board, “create a group under the auspices of the board.”

“I could buy the Ginger Bread House (in Chester) with its approved capacity of six or eight and put inmates in there and no one here would have any say over that,” Nunnikhoven said, adding “so this is an effort to bring people together in a place to prepare them to be outside of incarceration.”

“I could buy the Ginger Bread House (in Chester) with its approved capacity of six or eight and put inmates in there and no one here would have any say over that. So this is an effort to bring people together in a place to prepare them to be outside of incarceration.”

John Nunnikhoven
Church at Prison

He added, “The (prison) system is intended to teach them (prisoners) that they have no rights and can’t make decisions – no matter how short their time” behind bars. “We have the opportunity to … give them support. It works. It reduces recidivism.”

Chester resident Tom Hildreth wondered why the state didn’t establish dorms on prison property, isolated from the prison, as transitional housing. Cynthia Martin, a state legislator and member of the Restorative Justice board, said the issue is money.

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 40 years. Cynthia has 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, and has won numerous state awards for her reporting. As an editor, she has overseen her staffs to win many awards for indepth coverage. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. Ward says:

    WOW! I give Diana Ashworth 100% for her opinion. But, we are responsible. I feel comfortable supporting the men and women who made a horrible mistake. The first one who has not sinned should throw the first stone. Do you think for a minute that some of your actions have been lawful? The point is that if we don’t forgive and have hope for the men and women who have broken the law, who want to stop, people who want to follow a better path and stop crossing the line between good and evil then there is no hope. If you do not agree then you were brought up good. But the people who were not as fortunate as you deserve a second chance.

  2. Brian T. Heybyrne says:

    Barre – What you wrote is quite true in many respects. The problem is the law is loosely written and funding is shoestring, and not all violent offenders (such as the ones proposed to reside in Chester) suffer from mental illness. The cracks are too big for them not to fall through.

  3. One important point to keep in mind during this discussion is that the restriction on Springfield accepting only Springfield residents from SSCF is the result of an agreement between the DOC and the town of Springfield. This was part of the package forged when Springfield was being considered as a site for Vermont’s next prison.

    The Springfield Justice Center did not have any voice in this, it did not even exist at the time.

    Chester could make a similar agreement with DOC if we would like to host the next prison when it is proposed. I don’t think I want to be around for that donnybrook.

  4. Barre Pinske says:

    I believe many of us are a product of our environment. Adult dysfunction, aside from extreme mental illness, often stems from upbringing.

    It’s everywhere and these folks are trying to help.

    The best thing we can do as a community is work harder to protect and nurture our children. They are the adults of the future. I know three people who don’t work, they are on meds, drugs and alcohol or who knows. At least this group has a plan and structure. I don’t believe so much in good or bad.

    I know plenty about dysfunction from the way I was raised. I have done much to help myself not drinking and drugging was a start 30 years ago.

    I trust that these folks know what they are doing and are trying to help. Find a home in the woods, get the folks to meetings, therapy, whatever they need.

    It’s better than saying you’re free now go return to your dysfunctional family and friends. Change means change. Behaviors become engrained in our minds like hard wiring. Support in a group gives folks a much better chance at change. AA has proved that an infinite amount of times.

  5. Diana Ashworth says:

    This really seems like it is getting rammed down our throats. And if Springfield is allowed to only take Springfield residents, why are we being forced to take in a Londonderry resident? If we start taking people from other towns, what is to stop Chester as being designated a dumping ground for prisoners trying to reenter society. And why does the Justice Center able to tell towns that they don’t have the right to deny such a facility in their town. And please don’t treat people who question this program as idiots who just ‘don’t understand’. We understand the need, but we are questioning the impact of such a place on the the safety of our community, the desirablity of our community, and the rights of individual homeowners who might face a decrease in their home values. That’s our right as residents and taxpayers.