Jim Kenyon: Former Vermont prison official gives his side of the story

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 3/10/2020 11:13:11 PM
Modified: 3/10/2020 11:13:02 PM

Ed Adams climbed quickly up the ranks at the Vermont Department of Corrections.

A decade after starting out as a corrections officer, Adams, still in his early 40s, was put in charge of the state’s only women’s prison in 2013. A few years later, he took over at the state’s second-largest prison, Southern State Correctional Facility, in Springfield. In 2016, he was named DOC’s manager of the year.

But as young adult novelist S.E. Hinton wrote nearly 50 years ago: That was then, this is now.

Today, Adams is held up as a not-so-shining example of what’s wrong with Vermont’s public records law, which keeps most personnel information regarding state employees a secret.

The law is touted as a way to protect the privacy of public employees. But as Adams has discovered, the law serves another purpose as well. It can be used by high-ranking state officials — much higher on the ladder than Adams — to avoid public scrutiny.

For more than a year, Adams has been dogged by allegations that he created a hostile work environment at the Springfield prison.

In September 2018, he was placed on paid administrative leave while the state’s Agency of Human Services investigated the allegations.

In December 2018, Adams returned to work. But not as superintendent of the Springfield prison. Instead he was earning $94,000 a year as a DOC probation officer. It’s roughly $10,000 a year more than the top of the pay scale for the position.

Attorney General TJ Donovan refused to release the investigative report that detailed what had happened in Springfield. VtDigger sued.

The state and Adams recently agreed to release records sought in the 2019 lawsuit. At Adam’s request, the state also released his annual DOC performance evaluations. The most recent evaluation, completed in April 2018 when Adams still worked in Springfield, showed an overall grade of “outstanding,” the highest mark given.

On Monday, I sat down with Adams and his attorney, Norman Watts, of Woodstock. Adams, who lives in Quechee, told me that he’s wanted to give his side of the story for a while.

But the state and its lawyers weren’t keen on the idea, he said. The Vermont State Employees’ Association also had joined the legal fight to keep Adams’ records from reaching the public.

“They didn’t want to set a precedent that would put other employees’ personnel records in jeopardy,” Adams said. (VSEA Executive Director Steve Howard echoed the sentiment in a January interview with VtDigger.)

Adams went along with the union’s wishes.

“I didn’t want to do damage to the (DOC) or other employees,” he said.

In late 2019, Adams found himself back in the news when the state released its December 2018 agreement with him. Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith told VtDigger the state’s practice of entering into secret agreements with highly paid employees “needs to stop.” Information about the Springfield allegations against Adams remained mostly confidential. So confidential that Adams hadn’t seen the report.

As part of the December 2018 agreement, Adams relinquished his right to request “records related to this matter” under Vermont’s public records law.

With DOC dangling the probation officer’s position — and a $94,000 salary — Adams figured he had little choice.

“I’m a father and a husband, and I have a mortgage,” he said. “Those were key in my mind all the time.” (The salary was about $7,000 less than he made as a prison superintendent.)

I met Adams in 2015 during a visit to Chittenden Regional, the women’s prison, in South Burlington. He was brought in after Chittenden’s superintendent had resigned following an independent report on “disturbing conditions” at the prison.

Adams brought a more therapeutic, less punitive approach to prison management, starting with drastically reducing the use of solitary confinement.

Still, problems persisted. A Seven Days investigation published last year revealed drug use and misconduct by corrections officers.

Former U.S. Attorney Tristram Coffin is leading an investigation into the reports. Although the investigation is scheduled to be finished in April, Adams told me he has not yet been interviewed.

Documents released as part of the recent agreement showed that Adams was twice investigated for allegedly harassing a staff member at Chittenden Regional. Both times the Agency of Human Services’ investigation unit found the allegations “unfounded.”

In August 2016, Adams took over another troubled prison. In Springfield, his predecessor was fired for bullying medical personnel into keeping a mentally-ill inmate in solitary confinement.

At Springfield, Adams said he was “trying to do some out-of-the box stuff.”

He rewarded troubled inmates for good behavior with snacks, including their favorite flavor of premium ice cream. During his tenure, the prison staff’s use of force, including pepper spray, declined.

Some staff considered him too soft on inmates, he said.

“I was naive to think I could get everyone on board,” he said.

The 11-page investigative report on what happened in Springfield doesn’t say whether Adams violated any state personnel policies.

But it shows he didn’t always distinguish himself when dealing with employees. He sometimes used salty and inappropriate sexual language.

Employees told investigators that Adams used sexist language, too. One day, Adams and an unnamed employee heard someone crying in a restroom near his office. Adams sent the other employee in to check, claiming it was women’s work to deal with emotional issues.

A few months before he was placed on leave, Adams said he told his bosses that he was looking to step away from his superintendent’s role.

“I had kind of burned out,” he said. “The job is 24/7.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784
603-298-8711

 

© 2020 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy