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Vt. corrections commissioner resigns amid prison sex abuse investigation

(WCAX)
Published: Dec. 18, 2019 at 11:43 AM EST
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The commissioner of the Vermont Department of Corrections is stepping down two weeks after accusations surfaced of systemic drug and sex abuse at the state women's prison. And if the allegations prove to be true-- it happened under his watch. Our Calvin Cutler takes a closer look.

Outgoing Corrections Commissioner Mike Touchette sent WCAX News a statement on Wednesday. He does not mention the women's prison allegations and says he is stepping down to find a better balance between work and his personal life.

But as he leaves and new leadership takes over, the Department of Corrections continues to conduct an investigation about the alleged abuse and how high up in the system it goes.

Touchette submitted his resignation to the Agency of Human Services on Monday.

"I know when he sat down with me on Monday afternoon to submit his resignation, this was a man where the whole of the situation really has taken a lot out of him," said Mike Smith, the secretary of the Agency of Human Services.

That situation is an ongoing investigation of allegations of sexual abuse and harassment of inmates and female officers, as well as drug abuse at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Center in South Burlington. Smith is overseeing the investigation and had already appointed Deputy Commissioner Judy Henkin to oversee the women's prison and report directly to him. Now, Henkin will serve as acting commissioner.

Smith says he waited to tell the press about Touchette until Wednesday so the department's 4,000 employees would know first and they wouldn't learn about it through the news.

Touchette steps away after 11 months as commissioner but 30 years in corrections. He issued a statement to WCAX News that said, in part: "I truly have appreciated the ongoing support from those who know me and have worked with me directly. At this point in time, I feel that I need to find a better balance between my career and personal life."

Touchette is not leaving state government. He will return to being a classified employee. Smith says it's unclear what job Touchette will do.

As many search for accountability, Smith says his department is being as open as possible in the fallout after the alleged abuse.

"I've been trying to instill a lot of transparency, that's why I wanted to get this message out to staff ahead of time before they read it in the press. Transparency, I think, is important. I think we have been transparent," Smith said.

Smith says action is being taken at all levels in the Corrections Department. He points to a new system of reporting abuse they are rolling out. He says they are still searching for someone to conduct an external investigation of the DOC.

No criminal charges have been filed yet in the South Burlington prison case, though Vermont State Police have confirmed they're investigating one correctional officer, Daniel Zorzi.

Governor Phil Scott reacted.

"Yeah, it was submitted on Monday. Secretary Smith accepted his resignation on Monday night. It's unfortunate in many different respects and we'll move on from here."

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