The Vermont Department of Corrections has proposed holding quarterly "corrections town meetings" in an effort to better address ongoing concerns from prisoners' rights advocates, inmates' families and other members of the public about the conditions inside Vermont's prisons.
The proposed model, posted on the Vermont DOC website late last week, aims to replace the now-defunct Corrections Citizens Advisory Group (CCAG), which Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito disbanded last month due to years of mutual frustration on the part of prisoners' advocates and corrections' senior management about the group's ineffectiveness. To read more on last month's CCAG breakup, click here.
"Over the past few months, it has become apparent to me and to members of the group that the current model for CCAG is not effective," writes Pallito on DOC's website. "With this in mind, I propose a new structure to engage all of Vermont citizens in the work of the Department... The major change to the group is that it no longer has formal membership. Instead it will operate as a 'Corrections Town Meeting.' All members of the public will be invited to attend. This new model will give the Department an opportunity to hear new voices and establish new relationships with the community."
The CCAG was created in 2005 in response to widespread criticism of DOC. In December 2003, the Vermont Agency of Human Services hired Montpelier attorney Michael Marks and former New Hampshire attorney general Philip McLaughlin to investigate the deaths of seven Vermont inmates as well as other problems in the correctional system. The product of their investigation was the March 2004 Marks/McLaughlin report, which, among other things, criticized "a culture within the Department that fails to embrace accountability."
However, the CCAG ran into troubles almost from the get-go. Current and former CCAG members complained that the group failed to deliver on many of its initial promises for more openness and transparency into DOC operations. That frustration was shared by several DOC commissioners, who complained that the group's meetings sometimes devolved into personality conflicts and gripes about inmates' individual's situations.
To replace the CCAG model, Pallito has proposed eliminating the membership board and replacing it with Corrections Advisory Group meetings held "no less than quarterly" for about two hours at a time in a central location. Members of the public would be invited to attend and speak, but only for a maximum of four minutes each. Written testimony would also be accepted, which Pallito says will be read by a DOC staff member.
According to Pallito's proposal, at least one member of the DOC's "senior management team" would attend these meetings. The agenda will be posted five business days prior to the meeting, with the minutes and the DOC's response or action plan posted afterward on the DOC website within 10 business days after the meeting.
Pallito's proposal, which needs the approval of the Joint Legislative Corrections Oversight Committee, resembles models used in other states, including Colorado. In 1995, Dianne Tramutola-Lawson, president of International CURE — Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants — helped Colorado’s corrections director set up quarterly "citizen advocate meetings" to discuss systemic problems within that state’s prison system.
Like Pallito's proposal, Colorado’s citizen advocate meetings also have no formal membership. The meetings are attended by Colorado's director of corrections as well as much of his staff, are open to the public, with agenda items warned in advance. Individual grievances cannot be aired; instead, the group addresses systemic problems only.
But former CCAG member Gordon Bock of Northfield, an activist with CURE Vermont and former inmate, was immediately critical of Pallito's proposal, calling it "rushed," "paltry" and a "speed-dating version of the CCAG."
"Does the department, which says the Legislature's committees provide sufficient oversight, really just not want to be bothered with accountability to unelected citizens?" Bock asks. "It is my belief...that this proposed town meeting circumvents the state's open-meeting law, to which CCAG has always been subject. How is that anything but a giant backward step in a Shumlin administration that boasts of favoring openness and transparency?"
The Joint Legislative Corrections Oversight Committee is expected to take up Pallito's proposal at its next meeting, tentatively scheduled for September.
Photo: DOC Commissioner Andy Pallito with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) following the introduction of Second Chance Reauthorization Act, S. 1231, in July. (Courtesy of the Association of State Correctional Administrators.)