'Everybody Knew': Guards Say Higher-Ups Ignored Serious Misconduct in Vermont's Prison System | Prisons | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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'Everybody Knew': Guards Say Higher-Ups Ignored Serious Misconduct in Vermont's Prison System

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FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry

State leaders reacted with surprise and horror to a series of allegations Seven Days published last week about Vermont's only prison for women. "The behavior described is reprehensible and Vermont's inmates deserve better," Attorney General T.J. Donovan said as he pledged to support a state investigation.

But over the past week, more evidence has emerged that officers repeatedly warned leaders of the Vermont Department of Corrections that Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington was a hotbed of sexual misconduct, drug use and retaliation.

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Those notified of the allegations included a series of prison superintendents who still hold top jobs in the department — and Mike Touchette, a veteran DOC employee who now serves as the state's commissioner of corrections.

Even Donovan, a rising star in the Vermont Democratic Party, heard firsthand accounts of alleged sexual misconduct and retaliation at Chittenden Regional more than two years ago. He did not take action to stop it.

"I couldn't believe some of the things I saw there," one former corrections officer told Donovan at a May 2017 meeting, according to prepared remarks she shared with Seven Days. "Female guards are treated horribly, and blatant sexual harassment and the use of sexual language by male guards are part of the culture there."

She and another Chittenden Regional officer, Brittany Sweet, met with Donovan as they prepared to sue the state for gender discrimination, unlawful retaliation and negligent supervision. Donovan's office eventually settled the case and agreed to pay the women $85,000 — but both said that what they really wanted was systemic change in the state prison system.

"He seemed like he was very eager to help us," the former officer said of the attorney general. "Then we never heard from him again." She asked not to be identified, given the nature of the abuse she faced and her continued employment by the state.

In an interview last week, Donovan said he remembered the meeting and recalled finding the women's claims "concerning and credible." He said he was proud that his office quickly settled the suit, sparing them potentially painful and expensive litigation. "That's my job," he said. "My job was to settle the case."

It was not his job, Donovan maintained, to address the underlying causes of their lawsuit. "The Department of Corrections is under the governor's authority," he argued.

The former corrections officer, who has not previously spoken to the press, said she decided to share her story because she wants to ensure that state leaders follow through on their pledges to clean up the department.

According to her complaint, the officer's ordeal began in October 2012, when she was working at DOC's Burlington probation and parole office and began dating an older man who held a senior position at the department. The man had access to DOC's extensive network of security cameras and soon began using them to monitor her while she was at work. Whenever he spotted her talking to another male colleague, he would call or email her.

"Wave, I can see you. (I know – creep)," he wrote at one point, according to the complaint.

The man declined to speak with Seven Days, but in its response to the lawsuit, the state admitted that he had "monitored cameras at the Probation and Parole Offices at times for personal purposes."

As the relationship continued, the former officer said, it became more abusive. The senior DOC official allegedly monitored her emails, told her what to wear to work and denied her access to her car. He also became physically abusive, according to her complaint, leaving "marks on [her] body."

The final straw came in June 2013, when the former officer discovered that the man had taken nude photographs of her without her permission on his state-issued phone. (In its response, the state confirmed that he had taken the photos.) When she informed him she was leaving him, she told Seven Days, "He said, 'You don't know what's going to happen to the pictures.' I said, 'I don't really care at this point.'"

As she was moving out of his apartment, the former officer said, the man carried a gun and threw a dresser at her. "He scared the shit out of me," she said.

The woman requested a transfer to Chittenden Regional to get away from him, but she could not escape his watchful eye. She soon realized he could still monitor her over DOC's camera system.

The former officer said she reported the situation in November 2013 to Touchette, who was then serving as the man's supervisor. Another senior DOC official, Cheryl Elovirta, soon interviewed her. According to the complaint, the former officer told Elovirta about the man's alleged use of state equipment to stalk her and violate her privacy.

"When I reported it to Cheryl, I thought something would happen to him," she said. But it's not clear that anything did. According to state records, the man kept his job for another four years — eventually earning close to $120,000 a year — and finally left for a position with a private prison contractor in 2017.

The woman he allegedly abused did not fare so well. Fed up, she left the department for another job in state government, even though doing so resulted in a pay cut.

Touchette and Elovirta, now the department's facilities and operations manager, referred questions on the matter to DOC general counsel Emily Carr. She confirmed that it was investigated but would not say whether the man had faced discipline. According to Carr, Touchette could not find a record of an email from the woman.

As Seven Days reported last week, Sweet also alleged that she had faced sexual harassment while working for DOC — in her case, from a supervisor at Chittenden Regional and from the prison's then-superintendent, Ed Adams. In 2017, Sweet and the former officer decided to sue the state together. But first, they and their attorney met with Donovan in his Montpelier office to determine whether they could resolve the case outside of court.

Both women delivered prepared remarks to the attorney general describing conditions at the women's prison.

"Working at Chittenden as a young woman is hard," Sweet told Donovan, according to a copy of her remarks. "Older, male supervisors feel very comfortable engaging in harassment of their female staff. It happened to me. Sexual talk and banter are a way of life at Chittenden. I have had to deal with unwelcome sexual advances, and inappropriate behavior, on numerous occasions."

T.J. Donovan - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • T.J. Donovan

Sweet told Donovan that she had faced retaliation as soon as she spoke out about the harassment. "I'm not bringing this lawsuit because I hope to get rich or because I want revenge on the men who have treated me badly," she said. "I genuinely want to see the department change. No one should have to go through what I've been through. No one should be treated this way."

Sweet's fellow complainant echoed her assessment and described her own struggles: the video cameras, the photos, the bruises. "I wouldn't wish the experience I had at the DOC on anyone," she said. "I would never tell a woman to work there."

According to Sweet, "Donovan did a really good job of pretending to care about what we said, but at the end of the day it was just a show — because nothing happened."

"He wasn't willing to talk with us after that," the former officer added. "He didn't return our phone calls."

Donovan, who has often taken an expansive approach to his position, maintains that addressing the problems he learned about was outside of his job description. "My role as an attorney is to represent a client," he said. "My client was DOC."

The two women weren't alone in speaking out about the department.

Former Chittenden Regional officer Alicia Dancause told Seven Days that in 2017 she brought her concerns directly to Jennifer Sprafke, who succeeded Adams as interim superintendent, and to the prison's security chief, Michael Miller.

One night, according to Dancause, a man with a broken arm was temporarily held at the facility as he awaited booking. She said that her shift supervisor, Daniel Zorzi, was concerned that the man's cast could be used as a weapon — so he ordered it removed, without assistance from medical professionals.

Dancause was horrified by the decision and let Sprafke and Miller know. She also told them that she and her colleagues were concerned about Zorzi's apparent drug use while on duty. She described the white powder she often spotted in his nostrils and "the constant uncontrollable movements of his arms and legs."

"I informed them of how his actions and behavior put his entire shift's safety at risk," she said.

Their reaction? "They really didn't have much to say," Dancause recalled. "After that, I didn't report anything else. There wasn't a point. It didn't make a difference." She soon left for another job and, she said, informed Sprafke that Zorzi was the reason for her departure.

Sprafke and Miller also referred questions to Carr, the DOC lawyer. She said the two did not have "any specific recollection" of the meeting with Dancause. Zorzi, who is under investigation by the Vermont State Police and on paid administrative leave from DOC, declined last month to speak with Seven Days.

Last week, the newspaper quoted former Chittenden Regional officer Mike Bruno describing Zorzi's alleged drug use — and his bosses' apparent indifference to it. Since then, Bruno has tracked down two reports he filed to prison officials detailing staff concerns about the shift supervisor. The first was directed to Sprafke and Miller; the second to Elovirta, who succeeded Sprafke as superintendent.

"[Zorzi's] suspected drug use is so prominent throughout the facility that it is almost generally accepted by staff and is constantly brought up by inmates," Bruno wrote Elovirta in February 2017.

Bruno, who is now a New Hampshire state trooper, expressed "extreme hesitation" about reporting Zorzi because he feared retribution from his shift supervisor. "I have witnessed other staff face retaliation over reporting misconduct and am reticent about this hurting my career despite knowing it is the ethical thing to do," he wrote.

That June, officer Steffen Flibotte told Sprafke — then serving as Elovirta's assistant superintendent — that many of his colleagues feared retaliation from their bosses. Touchette, who had since been promoted to deputy commissioner, contacted Flibotte that day and asked him to file a formal report about those fears.

The two-page report, addressed to Touchette, describes a beaten-down staff and a "widespread fear of retaliation within the CRCF." It also describes Zorzi's alleged drug use.

"Staff have reported seeing white powder around the brim of his nose and behavior consistent with the use of stimulants," wrote Flibotte, a union steward for the Vermont State Employees' Association. After officers complained about it to Sprafke and Miller, Flibotte wrote, Zorzi disciplined them.

To the rank-and-file staff at Chittenden Regional, the message seemed clear: Keep quiet.

According to Carr, the state investigated Flibotte's allegations. She did not elaborate.

One former officer, who worked for the women's prison in 2017, told Seven Days she vividly recalled Zorzi's suspected drug use and his demeaning comments toward women. One night, she said, Zorzi encountered her eating pistachios. "He said, 'I bet those lips like salty nuts,'" she recalled. "It was insanely inappropriate. I remember just being stunned by it."

But the officer chose not to report it.

"It was just so easy to see it wouldn't make a difference, because I heard from other female [officers] that when they made reports it amounted to nothing," she said. "It was just so frustrating to know that this would go on with no consequences from higher-ups."

What's even more frustrating, according to Sweet, is hearing officials now claim that conditions at Chittenden Regional are news to them.

"All these people are pretending they didn't know what was going on, but they did," Sweet said. "Everybody knew."

The original print version of this article was headlined "'Everybody Knew' | Guards say higher-ups ignored serious misconduct in Vermont's prison system"