I don’t normally tune into a legislative committee hearing to get a history lesson. But that’s what I got Wednesday afternoon. It was a tough one to take.
Vermont’s women’s prison, d/b/a Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, is in really bad shape. It’s old, and was never designed to be a full-scale prison. It’s unsanitary and inadequate for inmates’ needs.
I knew that. What I didn’t know until today is that the CRCF has been that way since it first opened as a women’s prison back in 2011. The Shumlin administration moved female inmates into the already-aging facility knowing full well that it wasn’t up to par.
The good news: The Scott administration’s capital spending request includes money for a new women’s prison.
The bad news: It’s gonna take years for anything to actually happen.
The proposed capital bill would allocate $1.5 million over the next two fiscal years toward a replacement for the outdated and unsanitary Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, a.k.a. the state women’s prison. That money is nothing more than a down payment; the stated purpose is for “Planning and Design, Outside Consultants.”
That’s right, at least two years of planning lies ahead before anything concrete will be done.
Soon after women prisoners were moved to the South Burlington facility in 2011, a group of local nonprofits documented the presence of worms and drain flies in the showers, inadequate heating and cooling systems, and a dearth of toilets. In a report released last month, Vermont Interfaith Action described a “depressing, hopeless atmosphere” within the prison.
Everyone agrees that the women’s prison is kind of a hellhole, but the inmates will just have to be patient, won’t they?
After the jump: Work begins on legislation to address the DOC’s dysfunctional culture.
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.
If there was any doubt about whether Attorney General T.J. Donovan might run for governor in 2020, he has just eliminated it.
Not by making an announcement, but by making it all but impossible to get the Democratic nomination. The guy’s so radioactive right now, he ought to just lay low for at least two more years.
Because it turns out he played a major role in concealing the scandal at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. We know this thanks to Seven Days‘ Paul Heintz, who has done the near-impossible. He uncovered a major scandal in state government — and then, one week later, he has substantially advanced the story, at a time when every media outlet in Vermont is pursuing this thing. Or should be.
Today’s piece reveals that pretty much everyone in state government knew about widespread abuse at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility long before it became public, including officials who loudly expressed their horror and astonishment that there were problems at the prison.
Including, most notably for our purposes, T.J. Donovan, who has known about systematic problems at the prison for two and a half years.
The scandal-plagued Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility may need an independent monitor to provide an outside view of its management. Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan floated the idea Monday, in an interview from the meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General in Washington.
A report in last week’s Seven Days outlined a years-long pattern of sexual assault and other misbehavior at Vermont’s only women’s prison — and a pattern of covering up or ignoring those abuses. Since then, Gov. Phil Scott has ordered Human Services Secretary Mike Smith to launch an investigation, Smith has assumed managerial control of the prison and House Democrats plan to conduct hearings on the scandal as soon as the new legislative session begins next month.
Donovan said the idea of an independent monitor arose Monday in a side conversation at the NAAG meeting. “This has been done at the federal level with troubled prisons,” Donovan said. “Usually, there’s a list of criteria for compliance that the independent party would monitor.” Donovan isn’t ready to advocate for the move, but he noted that “we may need some sort of independent third party.”
Donovan has not launched his own investigation of the prison; instead, he is assisting with Smith’s probe. There’s also a criminal investigation underway by the Vermont State Police. Donovan defended his decision to stay in a supporting role for now.