Vermont prosecutors get firsthand look at life behind bars

SWANTON, Vt. (WCAX) A group of Vermont prosecutors went to prison Tuesday.

Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George toured the Northwest State Correctional Facility. It's in Swanton and currently has about 215 inmates. The prison houses lots of federal inmates and does have a maximum-security wing.

Our Christina Guessferd followed along that tour.

George told her most prosecutors don't actually know what it's like in prison, so this facility field trip is just the first step in helping them learn more about the place where people go when they put them away.

Many of the prosecutors were taking their first steps inside a prison.

"I don't know that I've ever really talked to anybody who's ever been in a prison about what it's like to be in a prison," Chittenden County Deputy State's Attorney Zachary Chen said.

It's an experience Chen says he won't soon forget.

"It impresses upon me that we have a tremendous responsibility to be thoughtful in the outcomes that we're seeking," he said.

Considering what he sees, hears and feels walking the prison's halls when recommending a sentence to a judge, knowing he can go beyond these walls at his free will but the people he puts behind them cannot.

"I recognize that there are times when that is appropriate, but I'm reminded that I need to be very mindful about thinking about when those times are," Chen said.

Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George says that is exactly why she took them there and why she's made a point to go herself since she's been a prosecutor.

Reporter Christina Guessferd: What about the environment here are you really trying to take in and absorb and hopefully everyone else is?
Sarah George: Really just that, just the environment. For better or worse, just knowing what the space is like, knowing what it feels like-- the humidity down to the lighting.

"I think anybody that works in the system should understand the system forward and backward," said Greg Hale, the superintendent of the Northwest State Correctional Facility.

And Hale says he wanted to do what he could to help make that happen. He says as far as he knows, this is the first time a prosecutor's office has toured a Vermont prison.

"People make an assumption that prison's going to be safe and surrounded by fences. I think what we're learning from their questions are related to their job. What do we do about separations in the system, how do inmates move through the system, how do we get them to a particular place for court," Hale said.

"We would never send somebody to probation or to a certain program without knowing what that program entailed and what probation meant, but we've been doing that with incarceration for years without really knowing what that means," George said.

George says she's confident now her team does have a better understanding of what that means. The next step in that process— facilitating more open and in-depth conversations about prison life between her staff and the inmates.