Lawmakers consider $18.6M estimate to install air conditioning at all state prisons

Installing air conditioning at the state’s prisons wouldn’t be cheap, but doing it sends a symbolic message, lawmakers heard Thursday. 

Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association, told members of the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions that controlling the temperature in the facilities is a health and safety issue as well as a matter of fairness for corrections staff. 

“It seems like a small thing, but it also goes to what I was talking about with the double standard,” said Howard, whose union represents state corrections officers. 

The higher-ups in the corrections department — who are setting policy and meting out discipline — work in an air-conditioned central office, he told the panel, while staff are “sweating to death in a brick oven, basically” as they work inside the prisons. 

“Symbolically,” Howard said, “it’s important for both the folks who live there permanently and the people who work there.”

The House committee earlier Thursday heard that it would take a rough estimate of $18.6 million to install air conditioning inside the correctional facilities that lack it.

Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield and the panel’s chair, said during the meeting that she had sought a ballpark figure for the price tag to give workers the ability to cool down the facilities, particularly on the scorching and humid summer days. 

“I think a lot of folks think it’s an easy thing to do,” Emmons said. “I think we need to clear the air so everyone is on the same page.”

Joseph Aja, Jr. of the state Department of Buildings and General Services, who provided the estimate, called it a “back-of-the-napkin” number, based largely on each facility’s square footage.

A more accurate cost would require seeking proposals for a designer to come in and check out the facilities, Aja said.

Two of Vermont’s prisons have air conditioning, Aja told the committee, though it might not always be in working order. Those are the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland and the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, the state’s only women’s prison. 

A breakdown of the estimates provided Thursday for the other facilities shows:

— Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield: $5,850,000

— Caledonia County work camp in St. Johnsbury: $55,500

— Northeast Regional Correctional Facility in St. Johnsbury: $1,380,000

— Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport: $5,550,000 

— Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans, $5,783,400

The committee took no action on the matter Thursday. Instead, Emmons said, she wanted to hear from others about it, including officials with the state Department of Corrections. 

Panel members also talked about ways to track the temperature inside the facilities over time to get more data on the current situation. 

“We hear a lot about the working conditions and the living conditions,” Emmons said, adding that the employees work for the state and the incarcerated individuals are in the state’s care and custody. “We are responsible for them.”

Later in the meeting, Howard spoke to the panel about the staffing “crisis” that frontline corrections workers are confronting on a daily basis.

He has testified before other committees on the matter, stating the turnover rate for corrections officers is almost as high as 45%.

In discussing low morale among corrections officers, Howard pointed to study released last month that showed high rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among the staff and people in custody at the Springfield prison.

Howard reiterated on Thursday his call for up to $20 million to help stabilize the staffing rosters.

“We’ve got to deal with this crisis before someone gets really hurt or worse,” he told the House panel as his testimony came to a close.

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