RUTLAND, Vt. (AP) - The shortage of inmate beds in Vermont could worsen before it improves.
At the Marble Valley Regional Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland some inmates are sleeping in the gym.
The Marble Valley facility was designed to be a short-term detention center for 101 inmates. Now it has 161 inmates and some have been there as long as three years. Cells for two have become cells for four.
In the past 10 years the number of people incarcerated by the state of Vermont has nearly doubled, from 888 to 1,727 this year - including 332 inmates lodged out of state because Vermont's prisons are full.
State Corrections' spending more than doubled during the comparable period, from $30 million annually to about $74 million. Still Vermont continues to face a chronic shortage of inmate beds.
Inmates at Marble Valley filed a class action suit this month against the state, alleging crowding and safety hazards at the prison. Corrections officials say the facility is crowded but they do not believe inmates' rights are being violated.
Marble Valley Superintendent Keith Tallon said that having beds in the gym is necessary to reduce crowding in cells.
Several factors contribute to the increase in the population, Tallon said. Though Vermont's crime rate remains among the lowest in the nation, judges are detaining some inmates without bail, or setting high bail that the inmates can't make. Some cases are facing long delays going through court. The statewide increase in heroin use is sending more people to jail on prescription fraud, theft and possession charges.
Although a 350-inmate prison is under construction in Springfield, it won't open until 2004. Meanwhile, Gov. Howard Dean and the Corrections Department hope to close the 80-inmate Woodstock jail in March, claiming the antiquated 1930s facility is hemorrhaging money that can be better spent on community supervision.
To save money in a time of shrinking tax revenues, the Corrections Department also plans to increase the number of inmates released on furlough by about 183 over 12 months.
Since October, 75 nonviolent inmates have been placed on furlough under the plan. Corrections officials say that by increasing the furlough program and lowering the out-of-state jail population still more - to 300 - they can save $1.1 million.
Though Corrections will increase field supervision for furloughees, the plans have triggered heated debate in the Legislature. Neither the House nor the Senate appears ready to cut out-of-state placements to 300.
Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, R-Essex/Orleans, wants to delay the Woodstock closing until at least June, possibly longer. The Corrections proposal to reduce available beds both in and out of state will make it impossible to jail people who need to be behind bars, he said.
"I see this as a real simple issue," Illuzzi said. "You break the law, you have to understand that you are going to be in jail. That's the only message some people are going to understand."
Police are also worried that closing Woodstock will force officers to spend even more time shuttling offenders from one facility to other. In Chittenden County, there is only one facility for adult offenders and it's capped at 197 inmates.
Meanwhile, inmates at the Rutland jail are jockeying for space and trying not to let the crowding get them down.
"There's no privacy," said inmate 24-year-old Toby Taylor of Rutland. "People are always on each other's nerves. I sleep on the floor. It's pretty chilly."