So Hey, Department of Corrections, How Goes the “Culture Change”?

You know it’s serious when a report from State Auditor Doug Hoffer (a) gets a lot of media attention and (b) prompts a chastened response from state officialdom.

That’s just what happened Monday with the release of Hoffer’s performance audit of the Department of Corrections’ prisoner grievance process. A process that was so lacking that Hoffer couldn’t even conduct a full audit because of poor recordkeeping. A process so lacking that to even call it a “process” is an indignity against the English language.

And no, I’m not exaggerating. Hoffer found that DOC records do not “have reliable, basic information to determine the number, type, status or outcome of prisoner grievances.”

Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

But wait, there’s more! Inaccurate data, missing records, no submission or response dates, inadequate training for staffers who use the system, and no DOC administrator specifically tasked with managing the grievance process.

It’s a great system if your goal is to avoid accountability.

Ashley Messier of the Women’s Justice and Freedom Initiative told VTDigger that the grievance process “has been an issue, a point of contention, for many years.” If so, how did the DOC carry on so long without fixing the process? Did they just simply not give a damn? It would seem so.

DOC Commissioner Nicholas Deml, who’s relatively new and was hired from outside the department, acknowledged the deficiencies and promised specific remedies. Good for him, but we should never have gotten here in the first place. The DOC has been flouting state laws that require procedures to handle grievances and mandate the creation of an independent Corrections Investigative Unit to review the grievance process, sexual assault allegations, deaths of people in state custody and escapes.

So how did the DOC become (a) so derelict in its duty to safeguard the welfare of prisoners and (b) a violator of the law?

I would humbly suggest a history of inbreeding at the DOC. Until the hiring of Deml, governors routinely chose commissioners from within the department. The last two commissioners — not counting interim chief James Baker — were DOC lifers who rose through the ranks. That’s a great way to warp an institution’s perspective on itself.

I wrote about this in August 2020, when Baker was talking about the need for a culture change in the department. The occasion was an outbreak of Covid-19 at the Mississippi prison that sickened two-thirds of its Vermont inmates. Baker sent two DOC administrators to visit the prison and review procedures. One of the two was Bob Arnell, a DOC manager who previously was supervisor of the endlessly troubled state women’s prison. He came back with a report that “reassured” Baker. I’ll bet he did.

Which brings me to a side note. Why do we still have inmates in Mississippi anyway? They were shipped off because of a lack of capacity in state prisons, but that shouldn’t be a problem anymore. Hoffer reported that DOC had 1,258 prisoners at six in-state prisons and 110 in Mississippi.

Well, in March 2020 the DOC had 1,650 inmates total. Need I point out that the difference between 1,650 and 1,258 is a lot bigger than 110?

Why haven’t we brought those people home?

Back to our story. I was asking much the same questions about DOC’s “culture” in early 2020 after the Covid outbreak and a series of scandals at the state women’s prison.

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?… 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?

We’re now closing out the year 2022 and the toxic culture is still in place. Best of luck to Commissioner Deml. He’s going to need it.

2 thoughts on “So Hey, Department of Corrections, How Goes the “Culture Change”?

  1. Pissed off taxpayer

    Considering DOC doesn’t respond to, or address, concerns raised by the public regarding the conduct of their own employees this article comes as no surprise. DOC turns a blind eye to the criminal actions of its own employees! How many tax dollars have been burned while these DOC idiots sit out on admin leave and are “investigated”. A complete farce of an institution.

    Reply
  2. Kirk Wool

    I’ve been litigating VTDOC for decades as part of my efforts to expose abuses. See Kirk Wool v. Lisa Menard, Wool v. Pallito, Nichols, et al v. Hofmann, etc. I’ve been trying to get the Vermont Auditor to audit DOC’s classification system that would expose how doc perpetuates over incarceration. Also search Kirk Wool in Seven Days and VTDigger. Look at the role DOC’s Cullen Bullard played to intentionally falsify a violation of parole against Doug Mason. There’s much more…

    Reply

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