Under pressure to reform women’s prison, Vt. AHS secretary proposes changes

Published: 12/11/2019 10:40:41 PM

Human Services Secretary Mike Smith is promising immediate reforms of Vermont’s prison system amid public outcry following a Seven Days report exposing allegations of drug abuse and sexual misconduct at the state’s only prison for women.

Changes under consideration, which will be delivered in a formal report for Gov. Phil Scott next week, include drug testing corrections officers and establishing an independent system for dealing with complaints from staff and inmates.

The newly appointed secretary is also sidelining Corrections Commissioner Mike Touchette from operation of the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility as he begins an investigation into the claims of drug use among staff and sexual abuse of inmates. But Smith said it’s too soon to say whether the commissioner’s job is safe.

Touchette, a nearly 30-year veteran of the department appointed to the commissioner post last December, said Tuesday he had considered resigning over the scandal, but decided he was the best person to lead the department through the coming changes.

“This has been a difficult time for me and my family,” Touchette said during a break in a forum that attracted more than 100 people Tuesday night in Burlington to discuss the women’s prison.

“What has me here tonight and what has me committed to doing this job is, again, my moral compass is true,” he added. “The vision that I have, I think, aligns with where we need to be. I’m committed to that. I still have the energy. I still have the enthusiasm.”

Smith updated lawmakers on the situation at CRCF during a meeting at the Statehouse on Tuesday. He later met with VTDigger at his Waterbury office to discuss plans.

“I will say this, and everybody kind of got a little uncomfortable in their seat today when I said this, I think we need drug testing of correctional officers,” Smith said in the interview.

The secretary said such a change would likely need to be bargained with the Vermont State Employees’ Association, the union that represents prison employees, but said it could also be mandated by the Legislature.

Steve Howard, executive director of the VSEA, said he felt Smith’s recommendation was premature, as the investigation into the underlying claims was only beginning.

“I would describe it as premature and a little sensational at the moment,” he said of drug testing, adding that there are hundreds of corrections officers and supervisors who are “upstanding, respectable” employees, “and to paint them all with a broad brush because of allegations against a few people seems to be unfair.”

However, Howard added his members welcomed the broader review of Vermont’s prisons.

“We have been for many years trying to call attention to what we see as a chaotic environment at many correctional facilities across the state,” he said.

There is currently an open criminal investigation into Daniel Zorzi, a former supervisor at the women’s prison who is accused of abusing narcotics on the job and engaging in sexual relationships with former inmates. Smith said he was communicating with the Attorney General’s Office and Vermont State Police to ensure his investigation into the prison did not impede their criminal probe.

Smith also said he had spoken with U.S. Attorney for Vermont Christina Nolan about the potential involvement in the broader review of the women’s prison, which he then intends to expand to the entire prison system. He declined to characterize Nolan’s interest in becoming involved in that investigation.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said during Tuesday’s meeting of the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee that he was frustrated that the media, rather than state agencies, exposed the problems at the Chittenden prison.

“I think that my biggest concern is to make sure that we take every step that we can to prevent the behavior in the future, and to hold whoever should be held accountable for the behavior,” Sears said.

Smith said his office at the Agency of Human Services will take direct control of the women’s prison as the investigation plays out. Judy Henkin, who was appointed deputy corrections commissioner in February, will begin working out of the central AHS office in Waterbury, and will report directly to Smith on complaints and other matters related to the prison.

Theresa Stone, the CRCF superintendent, will report directly to Henkin, removing Touchette, the commissioner, from prison operations entirely. Seven Days has reported that Touchette was aware of some of the allegations against Zorzi, and general fears of retaliation against whistleblowers in the department, as early as 2017.

Smith said he had conducted interviews with both Stone and Touchette about when they became aware of allegations of misconduct and how they responded. He said it was too soon to say whether their jobs were safe as his investigation was ongoing.

“Right now, I’m acting as sort of the independent reviewer,” he said. “If I say it one way or the other, I lose that neutrality so that I’m not avoiding your question. It’s just premature.”

Smith also echoed what prisoner advocates have been saying for years: the state’s corrections system needs more transparency and accountability. He said he would seek an independent third party to lead the investigation of the prisons, and another independent organization to run a complaint hotline that would allow inmates and employees to bypass the Department of Corrections in airing their grievances.

“I think it just makes sense that we shouldn’t be handling complaints about ourselves,” he said. “Somebody else should be handling complaints about ourselves. I just think it’s good government that somebody else should be handling complaints better.”

Smith suggested Vermont Legal Aid and the Defender General’s Office as organizations that could handle complaints, though he said it was still under consideration.

Touchette appeared on a panel Tuesday night during a community forum at the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington put on by Women’s March Vermont and the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

An announcement for the event said the forum was called “to discuss desperately needed systems accountability and immediate change” at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility.

Among the more than 100 people who filled the meeting space were state officials as well as many former prisoners of the women’s facility.

Touchette said as commissioner he accepted responsibility for “everything that happens” in the corrections department. “I’m very proud of the work that we’ve done, we have a lot more work to do,” he said.

Marsha Tormey of Burlington, speaking during a question and answer period of the forum, told Touchette she found it difficult to hear him talk about changes he wanted to make at the prison.

“This is your job,” she said, adding that she found it hard to believe that he and others in charge didn’t know how widespread the problems were at the facility.

“I’m sorry, but it’s really just hard to listen to right now,” she said.

Another panel member, Ashley Messier of the ACLU of Vermont Smart Justice Campaign, said she has spent a great deal of time in the past few days meeting with women inside the Chittenden facility.

“This is not as simple as firing a few bad people,” Messier added. “This is a systems level problem, this is something that is decades old.”

Messier, who had been formerly incarcerated at the facility, said women who have been held at the prison have been “screaming” about the problems there for years.

“I’m hoping that the people in this room can help us come up with solutions,” she said. “What do we do now and what do we do for the people that are there right now? I mean, these women are heartbroken and terrified and are hoping and relying on all of us.”

Karen Tronsgard-Scott, executive director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and a panel member, said that an investigation into the women’s prison should be done by a outside group or national organization with “expertise in prison reformation.”

In addition, Tronsgard-Scott said, her organization is calling on Smith, the AHS secretary, to name a panel of experts to help oversee the investigation process.

“That panel would ideally include both people from state systems as well as advocates,” she said. “Ideally, it would include formerly incarcerated women.”

Martha Maksym, deputy secretary of the state Agency of Human Services who also served on the panel, said she would be willing to take recommendations from Tronsgard-Scott about what organizations would be best to carry out the investigation at the women’s prison.

“I would like to explore the idea of having an oversight group that is made up of community members,” Maksym said.

“I’ll be the first to sign up,” one member of the crowd responded.

Melissa Gaboury, a former prisoner at the Chittenden facility who just recently was released, was another member of the audience who stood up to address the panel.

“What’s worse than being a victim is having no one to report abuse to,” she said. “There is a grievance system at the prison that doesn’t work.”

Prisoner grievances, Gaboury said, should be heard and decided on by people from outside the facility to avoid conflicts of interests.

“What would empower these women the most would be to be heard,” she said.

Xander Landen contributed reporting

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