For the Women’s Prison, a long slog to respectability

Best room: Karen Dolan, effecrtive minimalist backdrop and good facial lighting. Worst: Tie between Marcia Martel and Linda Joy Sullivan. Bad lighting, odd backdrop, and up-the-nostril camera positioning.

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 significcant 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.

Baker picked up on that point. “You cannot convince inmates that we care about them when they’re in that facility,” he said, and added that inmates deserve to be treated with “the dignity and respect every person deserves.”

Too bad an inmate’s lawsuit over unsanitary conditions in the prison was recently tossed out by a[n allegedly] sexist pig of a judge down Rutland way.

Members of the committee, and Baker himself, accepted the report’s findings and vowed to act on them. As he has often done in the past, Baker took personal responsibility for bringing about a significant “culture change” in his department. “I don’t accept that it’s that difficult to keep boundaries,” he said. “Lots of professions operate within boundaries.”

Baker talked of the need for an investigative unit within DOC. McDonald floated the idea of an independent committee, perhaps of retired judges, who would oversee prison operations.

Committee chair Alice Emmons promised more hearings and invited testimony from concerned parties. She expressed hope that the Governor’s budget would include necessary funding for some measures, and that room could be found in the capital budget for a new women’s prison.

From this vantage point, it seems like a longshot. This is going to be an extremely tight budget, and there is little appetite ifor new building projects that would increase the state’s debt burden. Emmons’ committee will also be discussing legislation to address some of the issues in the DRM report.

Baker said something that chilled me. “This is not the only place we have cultural issues,” he said. “This came to light because of the Seven Days story.”

Yikes. How many exposes could be done about the DOC?

Baker accepted personal responsibility for making culture change happen. He said the DOC will be “developing a process at Chittenden and spreading it throughout the system.”

All of this will take years at the very least. Culture change, Baker emphasized, takes a long time and a consistent effort. The women of Chittenden are waiting.

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