A Great Education

Working in Windsor Prison and for The Vermont Alcohol Rehabilitation Board

Windsor State Prison
Windsor State Prison
Windsor State Prison Farm
Windsor State Prison Farm

I went to work for an organization known as the Alcoholic Rehabilitation Board in 1961, which was basically the only anti-drug or counseling program in the state.

We had five or six people on the board. All of them greatly interested in the subject, from one perspective or another. In most cases, they were members of AA. AA had a strong influence on the direction of what later became alcoholism treatment. There was no treatment in those days.

Mental Health didn’t want anything to do with alcoholics because there was no money in it.

I think I started in May or something like that in 1961 and was asked to take over the Springfield office. I don’t know that I’d ever been to Springfield in my life when I went down there. But I quickly made acquaintanceships throughout Windsor County.

It’s a different place in government when you’re working away from Montpelier. I sometimes think the further they get from Montpelier, the better the programs are and the more self-sufficient the communities are. Where I’ve observed it was in Brattleboro, for one place, and Bennington, for another, which is the two significant communities of any size furthest from Montpelier. And in both of those communities, it seemed to me that community organizations and resource people were just more readily available to help or to start programs or to be part of whatever was going on. But that’s certainly an observation that I can’t prove. It’s simply an observation.

I can remember walking in the office in 1961 in Springfield. I went in, and I sat down, and I said to myself, “Now, I wonder what an alcoholism counselor is supposed to do (laugh).” But I was hired and given a half a dozen books on alcoholism to read and talked with those that were already working in the field along with the director of the office at the time, a man by the name of Joe Verdery.

That was my training. There was no training in counseling. There was no prescription as to what you were supposed to do, whether you were supposed to follow some sort of mental health model, an AA model, a vocational rehabilitation model. There were five of us or six when I started, and we all had a sort of different emphasis and different style.

I used to spend a lot of time getting my clients–I never used that word–oriented or acquainted with AA. I also spent a lot of time looking for jobs and finding contacts. I developed contacts fairly fast down there, of people who would hire people and take a chance.

I learned an awful lot about me, but I learned an awful lot about a part of the world that I had never understood, and I’m sure most people don’t understand it until they’re exposed to it. Everything I’ve learned about human services pretty much I learned in that job in 1961. I learned that poor people didn’t have money (laugh), that poor people were poor. I learned that we didn’t have enough good jobs in Vermont for the people we had. I learned that we had really a high degree of poverty, rural type poverty in Vermont. I learned that the communities themselves had a supportive quality for all its citizens. I mean, most people stayed in the same place. There was far less mobility in the population. But by and large, through trial and error, I think what I learned most was how to interact with people and how to not irritate people in trying to get them off the booze.

It was a long way from where I lived. I lived in Barre, and I was commuting to Springfield. And I didn’t find a very suitable living arrangement for during the week in Springfield. It’s easier to beg forgiveness than get permission, so I moved the office to Windsor and got a room that I could stay in during the week. And at the same time, I got involved with working in the prison and with the prison resource people.

This is a different scale of numbers than in the current time. When I went to Windsor to work, I think there were 200 inmates. That was pretty much it, other than county jails around the state. They did have the prison farm, which was the more open kind of community, where if you wanted to walk away, you pretty much could and somebody’d bring you back. Oftentimes they would move someone who was going to go out into the community. They would put them in the prison farm and bring them to a better state of readiness to get out of there.

I never became an expert on prisons. I met some great people there. The warden was a great guy, Bob Smith, rehabilitation-oriented all the way. Used to ask me to lunch whenever I was in the area. And I gotta tell you, they fed me pretty good in Vermont State Prison and House of Correction.

I became interested in how many people who were incarcerated at that time were sentenced to jail, for whatever crime, because they had been drinking or were using alcohol excessively, or whatever. And I undertook a review, you might call it. I interviewed 80 percent of the people in Windsor. Well, first of all, it was clear that of the people that were there, easily 50 percent were there with alcohol involved problems. You want to call them alcoholics or not, you get into definitional problems. I wouldn’t say that 50 percent were necessarily alcoholic. But a significant portion were. And I learned about how people, very much unlike me in many ways, lived and came to be where they were. I mean, there were people there who customarily would bust a store glass window in order to be sentenced to Windsor, so they’d have a place to stay in the winter. That same kind of activity that took place around the state in county jails. In many county jails, you’d find the sheriff was almost a father figure to many of these people, many of them who were intellectually, physically, and socially unable to care for themselves or take care of themselves in any way that would satisfy the world.

I learned a lot there. I started two or three different groups—one at the prison farm, one in the big house itself. Got to know the guards. And, of course, the biggest problem that anyone has who goes to prison is coming out.

Taking people out of prison and finding them jobs was not an easy task in the 1960s or late ‘50s. Vermont was not growing. There was no sense of movement. Where we see pretty houses out in the country now all over the place, that was not the case in 1961. There was a lot of dilapidated, and there was poverty-type housing all over the state. And the stereotype of beautiful Vermont with its pristine homes was fueled during the ‘60s and fueled, I think, in part by a housing boom which occurred at that time.

So it was a great education. I learned, I think, quite a bit about Vermont. I went everywhere. In fact, they didn’t have much of a program in New Hampshire. Now it can be told: I went across the river and worked to a certain extent.

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