The House committee that oversees the state prison system got its first look today at a devastating report on the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, a.k.a. the state women’s prison.
The report by the law firm Downs, Rachlin and Martin was commissioned following a December 2019 investigative piece by Paul Heintz, then working for Seven Days. It unveiled widespread sexual misconduct and drug use between prison staff and inmates. Indeed, at today’s hearing, Acting Corrections Commissioner James Baker credited the Seven Days expose for bringing the issues to light.
The DRM report, released in December, confirmed the substance of Heintz’ story. Today, DRM presented the report to the House Corrections & Institutions Committee. All parties expressed a resolve to fix the problems at the prison, but emphasized that it’s going to take time — and to some degree, progress depend on state investment in personnel, training and facilities, at a time when money is extremely tight in Montpelier.
Jen McDonald, a partner at DRM, said misconduct has occurred “to a significant degree” in recent years; that many incidents are never reported through DOC channels because of “a belief of inaction” on inmate allegations (indeed, DRM staff uncovered many alleged incidents of misconduct that were never officially reported); and that training on sexual harassment is not mandatory — something that came as an unpleasant surprise to McDonald. She also told lawmakers that she was shocked at the antiquated, unsanitary conditions in CRCF, which were not within the scope of DRM’s work.
Last week, VTDigger posted a curiously lopsided story that trumpeted the intention of former state lawmaker Oliver Olsen to “audit the auditor.”
That would be state auditor Doug Hoffer, who seems to have gotten deeply under Olsen’s skin.The Digger piece went on and on about Olsen’s dim view of Hoffer’s work, cited the views of lawmakers with similar misgivings, and… um… barely quoted Hoffer at all. Nor did it include comments from the many lawmakers who have think highly of Hoffer. It kind of reads like a hit job.
There are two quotations from Hoffer, both apparently taken from emails. In fact, I asked Hoffer if he’d been interviewed by the reporter. “We had no phone conversations at all,” he said. “I had no chance to respond to the allegations [by Olsen].”
Well, that’s Journalism 101, isn’t it? A former editor of mine used to hammer repeatedly on the obligation of reporters to talk to everyone mentioned in a story. That doesn’t seem to be the standard at Digger.
So the article was a little malpractice-y. What about the substance?
VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld and Nina Keck have produced a whopper of a story that, among other things, outlines the state’s complete abdication of responsibility for investigating the Slate Ridge tactical shooting range and militia training facility in West Pawlet.
VTDigger first broke the story in November, detailing how many residents live in fear of Slate Ridge and its owner, Daniel Banyai. Digger also reported that concerned residents have tried repeatedly and failed to get any kind of enforcement or investigation of Slate Ridge or Banyai, despite his threatening behavior and criminal record.
The VPR story exposes quite a bit of new ground. The most egregious revelation: State authorities have played an energetic game of pass-the-buck regarding Slate Ridge, with the result that there is no investigation at all currently in progress. This, despite the fact that Banyai is openly flouting Act 250 rules. That’s pretty cut-and-dried, right? It shouldn’t be hard to get him on that.
Well, never underestimate the creativity of bureaucrats in avoiding a difficult task.