Proposed detention center stirs controversy in Rockingham - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Proposed detention center stirs controversy in Rockingham

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In Rockingham, a proposed detention center is stirring controversy this Town Meeting Day.

Building a multi-faceted detention center in Bellows Falls in an abandoned building on the Connecticut River has divided some in Windham County.  The Justice Center would house federal and state pre-trial prisoners, along with a regional dispatch center, education programs, and a law enforcement training facility.  Supporters say it would bring jobs to the community, revamp a rundown structure, and help lower recidivism rates.  

But opponents immediately put up red flags.  "We take care of our own here.  We don't need to add additional dangers for our children and their future children," said local resident Deborah Wright.  She wants the rest of the community to weigh in.  She gathered 200 signatures and got the non-binding question on the Rockingham Town Meeting Day ballot.  Do voters want a detention center in their community?  "When you go through the democratic process, it puts a stamp on it -- a line in the sand saying that we really don't want to see this."

But a day before the vote, Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark, who is spearheading the project to revamp the Liberty Mill, pulled the plug on the plan.  In a news release Sheriff Clark said the decision to not move forward was based on various factors including a recent engineering study which showed the building needs a lot more work than previously thought.   But he says the need for a facility that combines educational resources with traditional incarceration still exits, even if this is not the right location.    

"For one thing it was right on the Connecticut River.  It is a fishing spot, it is a hiking spot.  We have spend tons of money in this community to develop the trails system along the Connecticut River, and from the very beginning that was the wrong spot," said Suzanne Groenewold of Rockingham.

Whether a new spot for a detention center is viable remains to be seen.  Another petition in the village is already afoot which would change the zoning in Bellows Falls to make such a facility a non-starter. A public meeting to discuss that measure will take place the day after town meeting.  Groenewold says that while she agrees the criminal justice system needs a new approach, she needs some answers before supporting it in her community. "We need to see a business plan.  We need to see a business plan.  We need to see how it will or will not impact us.  How is it going to impact our school system, our health care and social services," she said.

The Sheriff says he has contacted the National Institute of Corrections for help finding a different location, but for now a new proposed site has not been announced. 

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