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Tip of the Iceberg: More Trouble at the Vermont Department of Corrections

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Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility - FILE:  LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility

In the two weeks since Seven Days published an investigation into alleged wrongdoing at Vermont's only prison for women, the newspaper has received dozens of tips about the state Department of Corrections.

Some tipsters have reconfirmed or elaborated on the findings of the original investigation: that DOC employees preyed upon current and former inmates; female officers experienced rampant sexual harassment; and those who spoke out were ignored or faced retaliation.

Other tipsters argued that the problems identified at South Burlington's Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility exist throughout the state prison system.

Seven Days plans to continue pursuing these story leads. For now, here is a sampling of what we've learned.

'It was very uncomfortable.'

In June 2018, a female caseworker at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield was standing in a hallway chatting with three colleagues. All of a sudden, something unexpected happened.

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"I felt someone grab my right buttock area," she later reported to the prison's assistant superintendent. "I turned and looked to see who had touched me." It was her direct supervisor, who is also a woman.

The supervisor allegedly slid her hand up the caseworker's body and linked arms with her. "Then she started to laugh about it. I yanked my hand away from her," the caseworker told Seven Days. "She said, 'Did I offend you?' And I said, 'Yeah, you did,' and I walked away."

The caseworker, who requested anonymity because she still works for the state, immediately reported the incident, and the state Department of Human Resources launched an investigation. But as it dragged on over the next six months, the woman who had grabbed the caseworker continued to supervise her — and, the caseworker alleges, turned their colleagues against her.

"They allowed her to remain in her position of supervisor during the whole investigation — allowed her to cause a toxic, disgusting work environment for me," she said. "It was very uncomfortable."

The supervisor did not respond to requests for comment.

In December 2018, according to a letter the caseworker provided Seven Days, prison superintendent Michael Lyon informed her that investigators "discovered evidence sufficient to establish that you were subjected to discrimination." The caseworker was surprised to see the incident described as "discrimination" — not harassment or assault — and was disappointed to learn that her supervisor had been transferred to a sought-after job at the DOC's local probation and parole office.

Though the supervisor was moved to a lower pay grade, she retained her old salary, according to Human Resources Commissioner Beth Fastiggi. "Our union contract typically permits that," she said.

The caseworker's takeaway? "If you are in a position to have power, you can pretty much do whatever you like, because they're not gonna do anything," she said.

'It's not easy to talk about sexual violence.'

William Savaria III - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • William Savaria III

As Seven Days reported in its original investigation, at least five Chittenden Regional officers have been charged with sexual misconduct since 2011. Few have spent time behind bars.

One former guard, William Savaria III, was charged in 2014 with sexual exploitation of a female inmate. She claimed he plied her with gifts and later penetrated her with his hand. He denied it but admitted they had a sexual relationship after she was released from the women's prison and remained under DOC supervision. A jury acquitted Savaria in 2016.

Later that year, prosecutors filed new charges against him alleging that he performed similar acts with two additional inmates. Prosecutors eventually dropped the charges for reasons that remain unclear. Both women later died of overdoses.

The three women aren't the only ones who say they were victimized by Savaria. That raises the prospect that he could face additional charges. "Detectives have reached out recently to a number of inmates regarding allegations of any possible crimes at the facility," said Vermont State Police spokesperson Adam Silverman.

According to former Chittenden Regional inmate Melissa Gaboury, Savaria entered her cell in a segregated unit of the prison in 2014, ostensibly to search for contraband. "He grabbed me and kissed me and stuck his hands down my pants," she said. "He molested me."

Gaboury said she reported the incident to her caseworker. According to Brittany Sweet, then a guard at Chittenden Regional, Gaboury also described the encounter to her at the time. Sweet said she reported the matter.

Gaboury said that police investigators contacted her in 2017 and again recently, but she has been reluctant to discuss the alleged abuse with authorities. "I'm a victim of sexual violence," she said. "And it's not easy to talk about sexual violence — especially with men, particularly men in control."

Savaria, who resigned from his job in 2015, declined to comment.

Another former Chittenden Regional inmate told Seven Days that Savaria repeatedly asked her to bare her breasts for him. "He would ask if I would show him my tits," she said. "I never did. I was like, 'Nah.'"

The former inmate requested anonymity because she remains under DOC supervision and fears retaliation.

She said the officer also sought to convince her to perform for him. "He would try to do things like tell me he would let me go in someone else's room if I would, like, make out with the girl in there, and he could watch," the woman told Seven Days.

'I felt extremely sexually harassed.'

In the year and a half Honestie Hensley has spent at Chittenden Regional, she estimates she's been strip-searched more than 100 times. Officers conduct the procedure whenever inmates return from court, move to other units or visit with their children.

But one search, in May 2019, is seared in Hensley's memory.

It was initiated when guards said they smelled drugs near Hensley and two other inmates. A pair of female officers ordered her to strip in a nearby shower room. As the junior officer conducted the search, Hensley said, the senior officer took a more aggressive approach.

"[She] kneels down with a flashlight and put it about an inch from my vagina and told me to spread my vagina lips open to see inside of it," Hensley told Seven Days. "Touching genitals is not how you're supposed to do a strip search."

At one point during the search, male officers were present, Hensley said.

The inmate filed several complaints to prison officials. In one, she wrote, "I felt extremely sexually harassed and embarrassed, as the entire Foxtrot unit heard her giving me the aforementioned demand."

But according to Corrections Commissioner Mike Touchette, the search complied with DOC procedures. In a July letter to Hensley, he wrote that such searches "are a valuable and necessary means to promote safety and security" in prison. "I encourage you to work with Facility Mental Health providers to address your thoughts and feelings you have expressed," he wrote. "Your appeal is denied."

Countered Kelly Green, Hensley's lawyer, "I don't care what the policy is. I don't care what the law is. They have an obligation here to be especially sensitive."

Hensley, who said she is gay and a victim of sexual assault, called the event "very triggering." She believes the officer was attempting to humiliate her. "I feel like she does it because she's showing that she's in power, and there's nothing we can do to stop it," Hensley said.

Though the officer in question remained on duty after Hensley lodged her complaints, she was put on administrative leave earlier this month, according to Hensley and a state official with knowledge of the situation. Deputy Corrections Commissioner Judy Henkin said she could not confirm the officer's status.

'I don't think employees feel safe.'

Last week, Human Services Secretary Mike Smith announced that his office had established a new hotline for state employees to report "sensitive concerns related to DOC." Calls would be fielded by the Department of Human Resources, he said.

The Vermont State Employees' Association quickly cried foul at the notion that staffers were expected to report wrongdoing to Human Resources, which investigates and disciplines state workers. "I don't think employees feel safe," said VSEA president Dave Bellini. "If you lie or you misspeak, you could be fired. So how could you go there?"

Bellini said the employee hotline ought to be housed outside of the executive and legislative branches.

The union's weekly member newsletter pitched another approach: "VSEA President Dave Bellini, himself a DOC employee, is advising VSEA Corrections [staffers] to take Seven Days reporter Paul Heintz up on his offer to listen to any and all tips, as opposed to taking them to DHR ... Heintz is promising confidentiality."

The message ended with Seven Days' contact information, which is shown on this page.