According to Smith, that timeline became unrealistic when, in March, the Department of Corrections barred outsiders from visiting the state's prisons in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus. "One of the primary tasks was to be able to interview various people, to see the facilities, to observe, to interview, and obviously we couldn't do that with the crisis that hit," the secretary said.
When he ordered the review last December, Smith appointed former Vermont State Police director Jim Baker to serve as interim corrections commissioner until it was completed. At that point, the secretary said at the time, a more permanent commissioner would be named. Baker replaced former commissioner Mike Touchette, who resigned two weeks after Seven Days published its investigation.
Smith said Monday that he had also suspended the search for a commissioner and had asked Baker to continue in that role as the department navigates the coronavirus crisis and accompanying budget challenges. "We have not established a timeframe for any of that, but I suspect it's going to be a few more months, at least," Smith said of Baker's extended tenure.
Baker, who has also led the Vermont Police Academy and the Rutland City Police Department through crises, said it can be harmful for an interim leader to overstay his or her welcome, but he said he agreed to remain "until the fog clears."
File: Paul Heintz
Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker
The outbreak has also imperiled legal changes Smith hoped to enact following the Seven Days investigation.
After conducting his own probe last December, the secretary recommended to Gov. Phil Scott that the state criminalize sexual contact between Department of Corrections employees and those on probation, parole and furlough. State law currently prohibits DOC staffers from engaging in sexual activity with incarcerated prisoners and those in the probation and parole system whom they directly supervise. Seven Days documented several incidents in which DOC employees allegedly engaged in or sought sexual activity with those on furlough — a violation of the department's rules but not of the law.
Citing Seven Days' reporting that a supervisor at Chittenden Regional appeared to regularly run the facility while intoxicated, Smith also recommended that all corrections officers undergo regular drug testing. Such a change would require a change in statute or a new agreement with the Vermont State Employees Association, the union that represents DOC staffers.
According to Rep. Alice Emmons (D-Springfield), who chairs the House Corrections and Institutions Committee, both proposals — and many other pieces of legislation — "took a backseat" during the coronavirus crisis. "I think the pandemic has really taken the focus off that," added Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Both lawmakers expressed disappointment that the independent investigation had been delayed, though they said the move was understandable given the challenges the Department of Corrections has faced in recent months — including a coronavirus outbreak at Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans.
"I think it's unfortunate," Sears said of the delay. "I think that needs to be put back on the front burner because we need to make sure that we get all the facts and then take appropriate action."