Vermont's Answer to Crime: Hard Work and Compassion

Inmates rebuild landmarks, residents reach out with home-cooking

IN response to rising juvenile crime rates, many states are constructing new prisons, imposing stiffer sentences, and setting up military-style boot camps.

Not Vermont. It eschews the shaved-head-and-khakis approach to punishment. Bucking the trend, the Green Mountain state has a new prison work camp that includes grandmothers serving tuna casseroles to convicts.

For the past 30 months, about 70 male inmates (mostly ages 18 to 27) from Vermont's first work camp have been busy wielding hammers and T-squares in public-works projects in 35 towns. In St. Johnsbury, they restored a little league field. In Lyndonville's Colbeigh Library, they built new bookcases.

Putting inmates to work is a growing trend in American corrections. But Vermont - true to its iconoclastic traditions - is making rehabilitation a communal activity, with inmates fixing up local landmarks while residents serve them home-cooked meals.

In Newbury, they rescued the town's last one-room school house, replacing rotting sills and bracing leaning walls. The Methodist Church on the town's green, once the home of Boston University, received a fresh coat of paint.

Citizens of Newbury have responded by preparing hearty meals for the inmates and sitting down to dine with them daily.

Since these young men were keeping alive the town's history, recalls Cornelia E. Lien Waterfall, former president of the Newbury's historical society, the residents felt they should give something in return. "I feel committed to these guys," she says.

Although still in its infancy, criminal-justice experts say the Caledonia Community Work Camp offers an ingredient key to rehabilitation that is often lacking in prisons and boot camps: community involvement.

"It doesn't make a difference how much an offender wants to become a productive, law-abiding citizen again," says Robert Sigler, a prison expert at the University of Alabama. "He can't accomplish that if the community doesn't give him that opportunity."

The work-camp idea was developed when Gov. Richard Snelling (R) sought economical solutions to some common challenges facing other states - lack of jail space and growing public concern about the crime rate.

The $2.4 million work camp was built with $1 million in federal funds. Many states have also used federal grants to build military-type camps that stress discipline, hard labor, and "shock incarceration." Such boot camps are cheaper than building new prisons, but they do not prepare offenders for life beyond the camp, officials from the Vermont Department of Corrections say. They punish and prepare recruits for a job in the military, but do not rehabilitate. Today, many criminal-justice experts agree that boot-camp prisons have not lowered the rate of recidivism.

"Most offenders haven't been given a chance to make a contribution to their community; they've never been shown how to say 'sorry,' " says John Perry, the department's director of planning. "They were just punished."

But this insular Vermont town has given the convicts, who have returned daily for months, many opportunities to seek forgiveness and self-redemption. "And what's so special about Newbury," Mr. Perry says, "is that they're getting the message. They're giving offenders a reason for coming back [to the community]."

Car thief Shawn Tanner has been so taken by the town, he hopes to get married at the West Newbury Congregational Church on Valentine's Day. He helped restore the church's 168-year-old Women's Fellowship Hall and, he says, church members helped him break the "attitude problem" that led him to a life of crime.

Other convicts find satisfaction in restoring buildings. Dean Hugerth says before the work camp, he'd rarely finished a task. Too often, alcohol, drugs, and jail - where he spent a total of four years - got in the way.

"It's a positive experience to be working here all day and seeing things get done," says Mr. Hugerth, whose trouble with the law started when he was 12. "And I like the old people. They've done a lot of living. They're wise."

Seated at long tables set with china plates on a recent fall day, the women of Newbury and the men of Camp Caledonia ate and talked, family style. Like a family, Hugerth and others say, they couldn't remember ever having.

One former prison camper, James Baldwin Jr., is now working as a mechanic. "It's something that will stay with me," he says of working in Newbury. "I had lost track of who I really was. Doing that work with these people made me feel like a human being again. The women opened me up to the me, the real me."

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