A law firm hired to investigate Vermont's only prison for women documented an alarming number of allegations of sexual misconduct against inmates and employees of the facility, according to a report issued Wednesday.
"While even a single instance is intolerable, this misconduct occurred to a disturbing degree," investigators concluded.
The state hired the firm, Downs Rachlin Martin, in December 2019 after Seven Days published a series of stories describing allegations of sexual misconduct, drug use and retaliation at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington.
The report documents many of the allegations first uncovered by Seven Days. At a press conference Wednesday morning, Downs Rachlin Martin director Tristram Coffin said that, after a year of review, his team had concluded that those allegations “were largely accurate and needed to be addressed” by the state’s Department of Corrections.
“The prevalence of sexual assault, harassment and misconduct was surprisingly and alarmingly high at CRCF,” said Coffin, a former U.S. attorney.
The report, however, does not draw definitive conclusions about specific incidents of alleged abuse. Coffin explained that doing so was outside the scope of the investigation, which was ordered up by Human Services Secretary Mike Smith.
Instead, the firm turned over evidence it collected to law enforcement “for possible criminal and civil investigations,” according to the report. Coffin declined to say how many referrals his team had made, but, he said, “It’s not a small number.”
In addition to allegations reported previously by Seven Days, investigators learned of others not known to the public. In the report, they outlined a "representative" sample of 10 allegations, ranging from inappropriate communication over social media to "forcible rape." The authors emphasized that the list was not comprehensive.
"[I]t would have been of significant concern if DRM had encountered even one allegation of sexual misconduct involving a staff member and a resident," they wrote. "Instead, DRM encountered many such allegations."
The investigation was not limited to abuse directed at inmates. The firm "encountered a significant number of allegations of sexual harassment" by department employees against their colleagues. “DRM concludes that the sexual harassment of staff is a serious concern at CRCF and DOC needs to take immediate steps to address this issue,” the authors wrote. They added that there were “shortcomings in the understanding and implementation of the processes for reporting staff-on-staff sexual misconduct.”
Though investigators encountered some allegations of drug use at the facility — including against a prison supervisor whose behavior was described at length by Seven Days — they concluded that such behavior was not widespread.
The firm commended the prison’s current leadership for attempting to address the problems described in the report, and Coffin said that department officials appeared to take the situation seriously. But the report also painted a picture of a correctional system that is plagued by structural and human-resource challenges.
Investigators found that staff morale was low, turnover high, the use of mandatory overtime excessive and training insufficient. Those conditions, they suggested, could have exacerbated problems endemic to prisons.
At Wednesday’s press conference, Smith described it as a cultural problem within the department. “I recognize that changing the culture is not easy and it’s not quick,” he said. “But we really must recognize, I believe, that failure is not an option here.”
File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith
According to the report, the department’s reporting and investigative procedures were followed in many of the incidents described, but it found those protocols lacking. The state’s investigative process “is lengthy and lacks transparency,” it found, leading inmates and staff to conclude that allegations are not taken seriously and creating a climate of “anxiety and distrust” within the prison.
Inmates declined to report some misconduct to authorities, the firm found, because they feared retaliation or did not recognize behavior as abuse. In some cases, inmates considered sexual contact with officers consensual, even though it is illegal.
“These reports are extremely troublesome not only at the micro level, but as indicators of problematic cultural and boundary issues within the facility,” investigators wrote. “It is also noteworthy that these types of incidents are well known among the other residents at the facility.”
Interim Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker has spoken frequently in recent months about what he has described as a sexualization of the department’s workforce. “I’ve made it very clear to staff, I’ve made it very clear to the leadership team that this behavior described in this report will not be tolerated,” he said at Wednesday’s press conference. “And I am on top of, on a regular basis, behavior inside the organization that I believe is detrimental to the wellbeing of the inmates and the people we supervise in the community.”
Though Baker said the report had not led to additional disciplinary proceedings against department employees, staff members have faced consequences for other sexual behavior on his watch. “We have terminated people as a result of that,” he said.
According to Baker, an internal investigation of Daniel Zorzi, the prison supervisor at the center of the initial Seven Days report, has concluded, but the department has yet to finalize its disciplinary process.
Five Corrections staffers are currently on leave as the department investigates allegations of sexual misconduct, according to spokesperson Rachel Feldman.
Baker was appointed to his position last December after his predecessor, Mike Touchette, resigned over the scandal at Chittenden Regional. That month, Smith hired Downs Rachlin Martin to investigate the allegations and report back by the end of April. The timeline of the probe was extended after the coronavirus pandemic limited access to the prison system. Ultimately, investigators were allowed into Chittenden Regional, and they had full access to department records, according to Coffin. The firm hired private investigators and the Moss Group, a Washington, D.C.-based corrections consultancy to support its work, which included focus groups with inmates and staff.
The long-delayed report includes more than a dozen recommendations for policymakers. Many of them are not new. After Seven Days brought the situation to light last year, Smith released a preliminary report calling for stronger prohibitions against sexual relationships between department employees and those on furlough or parole; mandatory drug testing of staff members; and a greater investment in employee retention and training.
Wednesday’s report repeated those recommendations and included others. Its authors called for better video monitoring systems in the facility and body cameras for officers; an improved investigative process; gender-responsive practices; and more humane facilities for inmates. They also recommended the formation of a five- to six-member “monitoring committee” appointed by the governor to ensure changes were implemented.
At the press conference, Smith endorsed the recommendations. “I see no reason, with the cooperation of the legislature, why this report can’t be implemented in full,” he said.