Corrections Commissioner James Baker continues to make the right noises. On Friday, after news that more than two-thirds of Vermont inmates at a Mississippi for-profit prison had tested positive for coronavirus, Baker talked of accountability and responsibility and the need for a culture change inside his department.
Now, if only he can make it happen. The DOC is a hidebound place, full of long-tenured employees whose kneejerk reaction is to defend the status quo.
In one of his first actions, Baker sent two DOC administrators to Mississippi to get a first-person look at things. He said he was “reassured” upon hearing their reports.
Not so fast, my friend. One of the two who made the trip was DOC facilities operations manager Bob Arnell. That’s the Bob Arnell who was once the superintendent of the state’s extremely troubled women’s prison.
I’m sure ol’ Bob knows all about problematic institutional culture. After all, he became superintendent after the inglorious departure of his predecessor, David Turner, who requested reassignment in 2012 “days after a report emerged that condemned the conditions” at the prison. (Turner, “a veteran employee” of the DOC, was shuffled elsewhere in the department.)
And we all know that, ever since, the women’s prison has been the very model of excellence. Oh wait.
In recent years, …guards have sexually assaulted inmates, harassed female employees, and pursued sexual relationships with women who have left the prison but remain on furlough, probation or parole — and, therefore, under DOC supervision.
That’s from a December 2019 story by Paul Heintz of Seven Days, reporting on widespread allegations of sexual misconduct and drug use in the prison — and the almost complete lack of DOC response to all of it. Except to threaten retaliation against inmates who had the guts to complain.
I don’t know how long Arnell was in place at the facility, but let’s conclude he didn’t have any perceptible impact on the “culture.” But I’m sure if he says everything is hunky-dory in Mississippi, we can take his word for it.
The day after his expose was published, Heintz revealed a 2017 internal report on the prison, which documented “multiple incidents of suspected retaliation against prison employees for speaking out about alleged misconduct at the women’s prison.”
Obviously, nothing was done about the report… until Heintz brought it to light. Then, Gov. Phil Scott called it “concerning” and “unacceptable.” He ordered Human Services Secretary Mike Smith to investigate, and two weeks later then-corrections chief Mike Touchette resigned. (Smith’s probe, led by former U.S. Attorney Tristram Coffin, is unfinished; it was suspended in June due to the Covid-19 pandemic.)
Speaking of Touchette, let’s talk about culture. Touchette was a DOC lifer who rose through the ranks from prison guard — sorry, correctional officer — to commissioner. He’d been named to the top post in 2018, replacing Lisa Menard.
I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count. Yep, Menard was another DOC lifer who also began as a correctional officer and also rose through the ranks. She was appointed commissioner in 2015 by then-gov. Peter Shumlin.
And you wonder how an institution develops a culture.
At least Smith realizes that DOC’s insularity needs to stop. He chose Baker as interim commissioner; Baker had never worked at DOC before then. But he was a lifer in the state’s law enforcement system, including a stint as chief of the Vermont State Police.
I have to say, that sounds kind of like someone who gets tired of drinking Coke so they buy a Pepsi instead. Oh, maybe that’s unfair; let’s say “iced tea,” then.
Smith, showing that he has at least a morsel of common sense, also said he would look outside DOC for a permanent commissioner. So maybe we’ve turned a corner, although I’ll withhold judgment until these bold words are transmuted into action.
Meanwhile, let’s give a thought to how we got here. How is it that administration after administration settled for internal candidates? How is it that the department got into such a mess? How do Shumlin and Scott feel about the choices they’ve made — choices that turned out to bear “unacceptable” consequences? What does it say about the legislative committees tasked with DOC oversight? Does longtime House Institutions and Corrections chair Alice Emmons have any regrets? Is she ready for a culture change — or is she invested in the status quo?
I wouldn’t say the same about Senate Institutions chair Joe Benning, because he’s only been chair for a year and a half. I would cast an eye back on former chair Peg Flory, though. Were these committees exercising proper scrutiny over the DOC, or were they accepting the blandishments of top officials at face value?
Was DOC getting the same level of oversight as other state agencies? Or was there a more forgiving attitude because, after all, we’re only talking about convicted criminals. They deserve what they get, right?
The issue advocates have been there to set them straight. But from what I’ve seen around the Statehouse, the testimony of people like Defender General Matthew Valerio or the Vermont ACLU or Tom Dalton of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform tends to be ignored — while the words of responsible officials are given substantial weight.
At least until the situation gets to be so damn embarrassing that it can no longer be ignored.
Sorry this is getting so long, but here’s one more thing. Over the weekend, Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon wrote a scathing piece about the Mississippi situation. He’s had a years-long relationship with Linda Hopkins and her son Eric Daley, who’s an inmate at the Mississippi prison. (He’s one of the lucky ones who tested negative for Covid.)
“Nobody cares,” Hopkins said of the out-of-state prisoners.
“She’s watched the DOC bounce her son between prisons in Kentucky, Michigan and Pennsylvania before sending him to Mississippi,” Kenyon wrote.
I’m sure that has helped his rehabilitation no end. And so have the accommodations, right? “From phone talks with Daley over the last couple of years, I get the feeling that the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility is a giant warehouse,” Kenyon wrote.
Kenyon’s column details Daley’s story. As a young man, Daley made a big mistake that led to him being sent to prison for 26 years, which seems out of proportion to his offense. But that was at the height of the War on Drugs, and Daley was a low-level drug dealer.
When he gets out, he’ll be a middle-aged man with decades of experience as a shuttlecock being batted around the system. If he manages to hack out a post-incarceration life for himself, the tender mercies of the DOC will have very little to do with it.
Scott administration officials insist they have no plans to cut ties with the for-profit prison industry. To me, that’s one big flashing red warning sign that the old culture is still very much in place. And one more reason to treat every official reassurance with complete skepticism.
If they’re serious about culture change at DOC, they’ll have to prove it.