On the women’s prison scandal

First of all, full credit to Paul Heintz and the Seven Days team for producing a tremendously impactful piece of reporting. You know you’ve hit the mark when you force every political figure in Vermont to stop in their tracks and take action to investigate a scandal.

And scandal it is. An epidemic of sexual assault involving guards and inmates at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, Vermont’s only women’s prison:

“It’s an epidemic at this facility,” said one longtime officer who claims to have faced retaliation for speaking out against it.

“The [officers] lie, have sex with inmates, assault people and have each other’s backs to ensure that nobody finds out,” said Melissa Gaboury, who was released from the prison last week. “They also retaliate against any inmate for speaking about anything.”

Not good. Not good at all. Especially in a time when the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) has mandated procedures for curbing sexual assault behind bars. And when the state’s corrections department has supposedly complied with the law.

Yeah, maybe not.

If half the stuff in Heintz’s story, and his follow-up piece, is true, then this is a full-on scandal that ought to rock the state’s corrections system to its core. People should be fired. People should be brought up on criminal charges. And not just guards on the front lines, but top officials who must have been complicit in cover-ups and creating (or permitting) a culture of denial and suppression.

The cherry on this shit sundae: Daniel Zorzi, a corrections officer who was a known drug abuser, and who trafficked in and shared drugs with inmates, was somehow named the DOC’s 2018 shift supervisor of the year. Here he is, embarrassingly enough, posing with then-corrections commissioner Lisa Menard and then-human services secretary Al Gobeille.

Oopsie.

Within 24 hours, Gov. Phil Scott called for an investigation by Gobeille’s successor Mike Smith, and Smith assumed control of the women’s prison. And Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah Fair George began a sentence review for all county inmates sent to the prison.

As for Attorney General TJ Donovan, he issued a statement deploring the scandal and offering his assistance to Smith’s investigation. Which is a characteristically cautious response by a guy who’s always willing to take on the Trump administration and big corporations, but shrinks back from challenging law enforcement institutions within Vermont. The situation would seem to call for independent action by the attorney general’s office. I mean, Smith’s a good guy, but can we fully trust any administration to investigate itself? (I tried to reach Donovan last week. Will update if I hear from him.) (Update 12/10/19: I spoke with Donovan. His remarks are contained in a separate piece posted today.)

On Saturday, House Democrats held an agenda-setting confab in advance of the 2020 session. Majority Leader Jill Krowinski made it clear that the women’s prison is at the top of their agenda.

“In the first week of the session, [House Corrections and Institutions chair] Alice [Emmons] will be bringing in witnesses,’ Krowinski told the gathering. “This is a very urgent situation we will be taking up.” The goal: “To get all the facts and information, and look at what options we have available to improve the system.”

Witnesses will include administration officials and prisoners’ advocates. I might also suggest Gobeille and Menard, and any other former officials who may have been involved, along with guards and others who tried to blow the whistle on bad actors — and current and former inmates, while we’re at it. The voices of the women themselves need to be heard. Where appropriate, the identities of witnesses should be protected.

And heads should roll. It’s hard to imagine upper management at the prison and at the corrections department surviving this.

It’s clear that the time has come for new blood in the department as well. Menard and current DOC commissioner Mike Touchette are both system lifers (combined time in the department: 60 years) who moved their way through the ranks to the top job. I’d have a very hard time with another insider taking the reins in what appears to be an organization with a thoroughly rotten culture. Assuming Touchette doesn’t survive this, and there’s not much reason to think he will — or should — survive this.

The very idea of “correctional facilities” or the predecessor term “penitentiary” is that offenders can be reformed and returned to useful roles in society. That ain’t gonna happen if they’re being abused by their supposed protectors, and the perpetrators are being protected by their superiors and the system.

1 thought on “On the women’s prison scandal

  1. walter h moses

    Jeez! Right on. If heads don’t roll we will know that the AG and any internal investigation is too hot for the ‘officials” to handle. Remind you of EB5?

    Reply

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