State Seeks Federal Probe of Vermont Women's Prison | Off Message

State Seeks Federal Probe of Vermont Women's Prison


Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith testifying Tuesday at the Statehouse - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith testifying Tuesday at the Statehouse
Updated at 11:12 p.m.

The head of Vermont's Agency of Human Services said Tuesday that he's hoping the federal government will conduct an independent investigation of the troubled Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility.

Secretary Mike Smith told members of a legislative oversight panel that he was on the hunt for an "appropriate third-party entity" to probe allegations of sexual misconduct, drug use and retaliation at the South Burlington women's prison — and, perhaps, the entire Department of Corrections. He later said to Seven Days that the ideal candidate would be the U.S. Department of Justice.

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"If it's possible, that would be my preference," Smith said.

At a community forum Tuesday evening in Burlington, Smith's deputy secretary, Martha Maksym, elaborated on the idea. "We have made a firm commitment to have an external, unbiased investigation of this," she said. "Secretary Smith has been in conversations with [U.S. Attorney Christina Nolan] and she is exploring if this might be something her office can do."

Precisely what such a probe would entail — and whether the feds are amenable to leading it — remains to be seen. Nolan said in a written statement Tuesday night that the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Vermont is "considering all options and the appropriate scope of our role." She added, "This includes consideration of potential avenues under federal civil rights laws."

In an interview on Monday, Nolan said that her office had been contemplating its approach since Seven Days published an investigation last week of Chittenden Regional. "Immediately when we read it, we started thinking about what, if any, role do we have here at the U.S. Attorney's Office," she said. "What I can tell you is we're looking at it from criminal, civil and civil rights angles."
Nolan would not say whether federal law enforcement officials have already launched a criminal investigation, but she noted that the Department of Justice often runs public corruption probes of corrections officers.

The Vermont State Police, meanwhile, has been conducting its own criminal investigation of corrections officer Daniel Zorzi since October, as Seven Days reported last week. It's not clear whether the scope of that investigation has since broadened.

Smith has been leading a review of the women's prison since Gov. Phil Scott called on him to "thoroughly investigate" it last week. The secretary told members of the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee on Tuesday that he expected to wrap up his review by December 20, at which point he would present Scott with specific proposals.

At the Statehouse meeting, he suggested that one such proposal would be to require all corrections officers in Vermont to be drug-tested. "We shouldn't have people that are high working in our prisons," he later told Seven Days.

Smith said he may also call for higher employment standards for corrections officers and would seek a more diverse workforce. He said he would require new sexual harassment training throughout the department and planned to implement a new complaint reporting system.

The secretary said he was close to completing temporary changes to his department's organizational chart. Deputy Corrections Commissioner Judy Henkin has been relocated to the Agency of Human Services' central office, from which she will directly supervise Chittenden Regional superintendent Theresa Stone.

Corrections Commissioner Mike Touchette no longer has operational control over the women's prison, Smith said, but he remains on the job. The secretary said he spent several hours interviewing Touchette and Stone on Monday to determine "what issues happened on their watch and what did they do about it."

Referring to Touchette, Smith said, “I have not determined what his future is going to be in the department.”
Corrections Commissioner Mike Touchette addressing a community forum Tuesday in Burlington - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Corrections Commissioner Mike Touchette addressing a community forum Tuesday in Burlington
The commissioner had been expected to testify at Tuesday morning’s legislative hearing but he did not end up attending. He did, however, join Maksym at the evening event at Burlington’s Ohavi Zedek Synagogue, billed as an “Emergency Community Convening to Discuss Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility.” The forum, sponsored by ACLU of Vermont, Women’s March Vermont and the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, drew more than 100 participants.

A pair of advocates who joined Touchette and Maksym on a panel at the event — Ashley Messier of the ACLU and Karen Tronsgard-Scott of the Vermont Network — argued that personnel changes alone wouldn’t fix the Department of Corrections.

“This is not as simple as firing a few bad people,” said Messier, a former inmate at Chittenden Regional. “This is a systems-level problem. This is something that is decades old.”

Speaking to reporters during a break from the forum, Touchette said he took responsibility for the events described in Seven Days’ report, but he also said that he did not regret any decisions he had made.

“I have not done anything wrong,” Touchette said. “I stand by everything that I’ve done as commissioner. I’m very proud of the work that we’ve done. We have a lot more work to do.”

The commissioner said that he had considered resigning but decided to stick it out. “What has me here tonight and what has me committed to doing this job is, again, my moral compass is true,” he said. “The vision that I have, I think, aligns with where we need to be. I’m committed to that. I still have the energy, and I still have the enthusiasm.”
Community members taking part in a forum on the Chittenden Regional Correctional Center on Tuesday in Burlington - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Community members taking part in a forum on the Chittenden Regional Correctional Center on Tuesday in Burlington
Among those who spoke at the event was Melissa Gaboury, a former Chittenden Regional inmate who had shared her story of abuse in the Seven Days investigation.

“What’s worse than being a victim is having no one to report abuse to,” she told the audience, explaining that the prison’s grievance system does not work for inmates. “What would empower these women the most is to be heard and to have personnel investigations going on and to see the people that have harmed these women held personally responsible.”

Gaboury added, “The women will step forward and voice their opinions after they feel empowered enough to do so — once the people that have harmed them are gone.”

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