More oversight promised after abuse allegations at Vt. prison

Published: Dec. 6, 2019 at 12:26 PM EST
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The Vermont Agency of Human Services says it's going to take a more active role in the day-to-day operations at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Center in South Burlington. This, after an investigation from our media partner Seven Days found widespread allegations of sex and drug abuse at the women's prison. Our Cat Viglienzoni spoke with Human Services Secretary Mike Smith and has an update.

Smith said being more active in running the facility is just one of many steps they're taking now to fix allegations of corruption.

"I was concerned. I was very, very concerned." That was Smith's reaction earlier this week when he read the Seven Days report detailing allegations that corrections officers at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility had sexually assaulted inmates, sexually harassed staff and done drugs on the job.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: Why weren't there more safeguards in place to prevent this to begin with?

Mike Smith: I don't have an answer for you.

Smith says the report was the first he'd heard of the allegations. He has been on the job for just four weeks.

"Being new to this position, it allows me to look at this with a clean slate, look ahead at how we change this going forward," Smith said.

In addition to having his office be more active in running the prison, Smith says they are also exploring several other changes, including redoing the system of reporting misconduct so that complaints about corrections go to an outside agency for investigation. Smith says he's not sure why that wasn't already the case.

"But that's a priority to get that in place in terms of what we need to do," he said.

Other fixes include mandatory sexual harassment prevention training for corrections staff, including mandatory reporting. He says they're also looking at recruitment and retention, hiring more women and potentially increasing the standards for new hires.

"We're going to make sure that things change," Smith said. "It seems to me from what was reported and if it's true, we've got a problem. And we've got to solve that problem."

Cat Viglienzoni: How will you restore the public's faith in this institution?

Mike Smith: By a transparent investigation and a transparent process... Not every correctional officer is acting like we're seeing in this report.

One thing he maintains is that whistleblowers should feel like they can come forward with accusations without fearing punishment.

"I said, 'Look, there will be no retaliation in this agency,'" Smith said.

Cat Viglienzoni: Will they be fired if they retaliate?

Mike Smith: Yeah. Yeah. If we can substantiate retaliation, they will be fired.

The agency told me late this afternoon that Corrections Commissioner Mike Touchette and Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility Superintendent Theresa Stone are still on the job. But how the agency intends to staff the prison if anyone is put on leave down the line is unclear. WCAX News has already reported on staffing shortages within corrections. Smith says that's something they'll be looking at how to handle if it comes up, too.

I reached out to the state employee's union for their take on that issue but had not yet heard back when this story was published.

No criminal charges have been filed yet, though both the Seven Days report and Vermont state police have confirmed they're investigating one correctional officer, Daniel Zorzi. Friday, Smith told me his office is also confirming an open criminal investigation. And when I asked Smith if the investigation was broader than that one officer, he said he couldn't comment.

Smith says they're starting with the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility but he says they will be looking at all of Vermont's prisons in the future.

"We're going to look at all prisons eventually. I think I want to look at Chittenden right now, and then expand it from there," said Smith.

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