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ACLU hosts discussion seeking justice for alleged victims of prison abuse

(WCAX)
Published: Dec. 11, 2019 at 4:31 AM EST
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The ACLU is demanding justice for the women of the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility after an investigative report found widespread allegations of sexual abuse by male guards.

The Seven Days report claims female inmates and officers at the prison have said it’s not uncommon for guards to sexually abuse inmates, harass female employees and pursue sexual relationships with women who have left the prison but remain on probation. They say that abuse has been going on for years.

The investigation looked at allegations against more than a dozen officers who have worked at the correctional facility since it became a women’s prison in August 2011.

On Tuesday, the ACLU hosted a community discussion to talk about ways to seek justice for those women.

Ashley Messier, the Smart Justice organizer for ACLU of Vermont, sat on the panel and took questions from the public. Messier spoke from experience having lived behind bars at CRCF after being charged with fraud.

Messier says she was not surprised when she first heard of the accusations.

“For those of us that have lived it and worked in it, none of us were shocked,” she said. “Women have been screaming for that facility-- well, from all facilities they've been in our state-- about these issues, about misconduct, about sexual assault and harassment and exploitation, including the women that are in the community on supervision because there is still such an unfair power dynamic that happens in the community for them."

People at the forum wanted to know what the Department of Corrections is doing to prevent systemic abuse from happening again.

Commissioner Mike Touchette said he’s focused on safe reporting and transparency. He vowed to make immediate changes to the prison system to ensure women’s reports do not go unheard.

“What those [changes] are right now, I think are tough to describe. I do know there's substantial interest in making sure we have expertise-- not only an outside party evaluating this-- but expertise that really can help us understand where we need to move forward and make fast but smart changes,” Touchette said.

Not everyone in the audience was convinced. They also criticized the current reporting system.

“You didn't know that people weren't reporting because they're reporting to their correctional officers? I mean, that's just-- I'm sorry it's really hard to listen to right now. That's where I'm at,” Martha Tormey told Touchette as the crowd applauded her.

Touchette also took questions about his handling of the allegations. When asked if he thinks he did anything wrong, he said no. He also declined comment when asked if he predicts any corrections staff will be fired. He also told WCAX News that the future of his employment remains unclear and he has contemplated stepping down.

“Of course I have,” Touchette said when asked if he has thought about resigning. “This has been a difficult time for me and my family. It certainly has."

Touchette also said his duties at the Department of Corrections have changed in the recent days. He says the primary responsibilities for the prison have been shifted over to the secretary's office so they can conduct a neutral evaluation of the allegations.

WCAX also caught up with Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George. She said she was not surprised when she heard about the accusations but she was angry that her office was not made aware of just how widespread the abuse was.

"I've been a prosecutor for nine years. I'm certainly not going to stand here and say I've never heard that that's been anything going on. Those allegations come up all the time in our facilities. We've had charges against guards at the facility,” George said. “So again, I wasn't surprised that it happened. I was incredibly surprised and furious at how much it was happening and we were never hearing about. I think that as prosecutors, we like to think that if this stuff is happening, we’re hearing about it and I never could’ve imagined how little we were hearing about it.”

The ACLU ultimately wants the prison to be shut down. They say it's long overdue and terminating staff will not be enough. They also want the state to consider alternatives to prison. They say at least 80 percent of incarcerated women have histories of abuse and trauma and they think community service and treatment would be better for them than prison.

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