- Historic Sites
In Windsor Prison
IT BEGAN AS America’s most modern penal institution, and for generations the Vermont State Prison reflected the changing ways by which we thought we should punish our wrongdoers. Then a tormented era and a ghastly crime combined to end its old career—and give it a surprising new one.
May/June 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 3
Outfitted as pigs dragging fellow demonstrators attired as prisoners in stripes through Windsor’s main thoroughfare, militants shouted, “Jail the rich! Free the poor!” From the prison came the sound of convicts banging on the bars, on one occasion for three days, off and on. There were constant riots in the cellblocks, stabbings, assaults, fires. A guard was killed. Hostages were seized. There were escapes. Hurrying to the prison in response to a screaming siren, Mike Coxon found himself listening to the shouts of convicts running in the opposite direction. He thought of his wife alone with the kids at home a stone’s throw away, reassured himself that the fleeing inmates weie undoubtedly going to get out of town as swiftly as possible, and went on. Lawsuits poured down: allegations of improper behavior by guards and officials, violation of prisoners’ rights, declarations that life in the prison was intolerable. The employee turnover was awful.
And Windsor began to turn against the Big Joint on State Street. Legislative rumblings that this ancient and antiquated relic ought to be done away with were nothing new. But they had always been voiced in Montpelier, the capital. Now such sentiments began to be heard in Windsor, the prison’s natural constituency, its home. The town is not large, some thirty-seven hundred people, and it was deeply affected by a fierce 1973 disturbance that saw the state police called in. More than fifty of them, with helmets, rifles, riot batons, shields, shotguns, and gas canisters, lined up in the streets around the prison, a couple of football fields’ distance from where children on the way to school were usually found. Calling in the state police is an open admission of lost control. No one in Windsor failed to take note of that.
The signposts for what was coming can be clearly marked. Resolutions to look into modernizing the prison were made in the legislature, but every study showed that the expense would be astronomical for a small state where taxpayer money has never been thrown around. There were more and more disturbances, violence, guard breakdowns and resignations, fires, students proclaiming their identification with the imprisoned—and there was the application for parole made for a particular prisoner.
Yet, the prison had not been entirely desolate. For some it had been a sort of home. That was what the baseball scoreboard said along with “visitors": HOME.
To all who knew him the inmate in question seemed an intensely dangerous man. Most guards may not be formally educated in the psychology or pathology of violence, but it is their stock-in-trade to know about it. Here, they saw, was danger. One day in his cell in the oldest part of the prison, in the basement, the prisoner poured lighter fluid over himself and lit a match. A brave and determined guard rushed in and saved him. The matter came to the attention of a Windsor minister and his wife. It seemed to them that kindness might effect something here. They asked that the prisoner be paroled in their custody.
Every employee at the prison was utterly against the idea. But while to the public the parole board and the prison authorities seem two arms of a single body, they are in fact totally independent of each other. The parole board voted affirmatively. Mike Coxon called the area superior of the minister and begged him to tell his subordinate not to take in the prisoner. He told the bishop that the minister and his wife had neither the knowledge nor the experience to deal with such a person. The bishop would not be moved. Let the erring sinner be freed and helped. “We’ll hear about this sooner rather than later,” Coxon said when he saw it was no use going on.
The prisoner went to live with the minister and his wife, and in a little while he entered the home of a Windsor family whose nine-year-old son was being baby-sat by his seventeen-yearold aunt. He raped the teenager. He stabbed the child to death. Coxon was home in bed when Windsor’s police chief called with the news. “That’s the end of the prison,” Coxon told himself when he hung up.
On August 7, 1975, Windsor Prison was officially closed. For months prisoners singly and in groups had been trucked away to half a dozen decentralized Vermont institutions, one of them the former prison farm turned into a minimum-security facility, where Coxon later was appointed superintendent. The most dangerous inmates were sent on contract to tough federal places. The traffic had gone the other way in the past, when prisoners from elsewhere had sometimes been hidden away in remote Windsor, their identities unknown to their new fellow prisoners along with their backgrounds: mob informers, former policemen who had committed crimes, men known to have revealed escape plans or drug smuggling in their former places. Gov. Thomas P. Salmon officiated at the closing ceremonies, and many in the crowd of four hundred wore T-shirts emblazoned with “Windsor State Prison, 1809-1975.”