c/o Seven Days
255 S. Champlain St.
Burlington, VT 05401
In a statement released late Wednesday, Smith said he was “deeply concerned” about allegations made by inmates and officers at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, and he vowed to take action. “If any of what has been reported is true, we have a problem,” the secretary said. “We’re going to find that problem and we’re going to solve it.”
Hours earlier, Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George said she planned to review the sentences of 20 female inmates her office has sent to the South Burlington prison and who remain incarcerated there. If appropriate, George said, she may seek their release from the facility.
The Seven Days investigation found credible allegations of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen of the prison’s officers since it became home to female inmates in August 2011. Officers and inmates alike alleged that prison officials ignored complaints and retaliated against those who lodged them.
Though inmates made 55 reports of sexual misconduct by guards during that time period, only one was fired for that reason, according to state records. The state has settled at least two lawsuits involving alleged assault or harassment by Chittenden Regional guards.
Officers and inmates told Seven Days that one shift supervisor, Daniel Zorzi, had been using cocaine and other stimulants in the prison for more than six years, though several said they had repeatedly complained to officials. In October, after an inmate alleged sexual misconduct and drug use by Zorzi, he was placed on paid leave and the Vermont State Police launched an investigation.
In his statement Wednesday, Smith said that “the behavior reported will not be tolerated” by the Agency of Human Services, which includes the Department of Corrections. “Let me be clear: If this is a system issue, there will be system changes,” he said. “If this is a personnel issue, people will be held fully accountable.”
In an interview earlier Wednesday, George described her reaction to the Seven Days report.
"I was reading it at the airport and was dropping F-bombs like I have not done in a very long time," said the Chittenden County prosecutor, who was traveling to North Carolina to take part in an event held by a criminal justice reform organization. "I was furious."
FILE: Sasha Goldstein
George said she immediately asked the Department of Corrections for a list of any women held at the prison who were prosecuted in Chittenden County. She said she was already familiar with the sentences of four such women who had been convicted of homicide or manslaughter. In an email she sent Vermont's other county prosecutors, George said she would be examining the cases of the other 16 women "and seeing if they can be resentenced and released."
"I am furious right now and I don't want any of them in there," she told Seven Days before clarifying that some of the sentences may be justified. "I would like to review all of the sentences to determine whether or not they are appropriate and continue to be necessary."
Though prosecutors have some tools to request more lenient sentences, George said, she believes they ought to have more discretion to do so. She said she had already planned to call on the legislature this winter to provide prosecutors greater powers to seek sentence reductions.
George said she believed it was her responsibility to take action because the women in question are her constituents — and she worries they are in danger.
"If this was any facility other than a prison, people would be rioting over this. Nobody would stand for this," she said. "Hopefully that's what happens anyway."