People occasionally ask me how I keep coming up with ideas. My answer is, there are always far more ideas than I can actually cover. This week, there were a few that I just couldn’t get to, but they seem worthy of note in short form. So, the first-ever Veepie Awards. Possibly a continuing series, but no promises. Or threats. The envelope, please…
Most Desperate Pushback Against Negative News Coverage. The winner is the Vermont Department of Corrections, which was on the bad end of a New York Times article outlining the toll of its Covid policies. In order to prevent outbreaks (at least a couple halppened anyway), DOC locked away exposed inmates in solitary confinement, the most extreme form of incarceration.
For weeks at a time… inmates were locked in 8½-by-10-foot cells in near-total isolation. They ate meals a few feet from their toilets, had no visitors, and spent as little as 10 minutes a day outside cells.
The strategy made the Vermont prison system one of the safest for contracting Covid, which is a dispiritingly low bar. But the cost, as the Times put it, has taken “a heavy toll on many inmates’ mental health, and driven some to psychological despair.”
And at least one to suicide. But hey, no Covid deaths!
A couple of fresh stains have appeared on Gov. Phil Scott’s reputation for managing the pandemic. First is the mass outbreak at the Newport prison, second is Scott’s turnabout on vaccinating school and child care workers — one day after President Biden had ordered all 50 states to prioritize educators.
First, the bad (and utterly predictable) news from the Northern State Correctional Facility. Long-serving interim Corrections Commissioner James Baker said the prison “is now being treated like a hospital” after a round of testing produced 100 positives among inmates and another eight among facility staff.
Gee, who woulda thought. An outbreak among people forced to live indoors in tight conditions with iffy sanitary standards? You don’t say.
The inmates deserved better. Whatever their offenses, they are under state custody with no right or ability to take their own precautions against coronavirus. The state has an obligation to protect people under its care. The culture-change-in-progress DOC failed in that regard. And it failed because higher-ups in the Scott administration have refused to prioritize vulnerable inmates.
They still do, even after the outbreak at Newport.
Now, it’s admittedly tough to make these decisions. A lot of groups make persuasive claims for vaccine priority. But a few points to consider:
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.
The tiny city of Vergennes is in an uproar, largely due to disagreements over its police department, which is led by George Merkel, the guy pictured above. Dude does love him some tactical gear, doesn’t he?
You wouldn’t know from his outlandish getup that he keeps the peace in a city of only 2,601 with vanishingly small rates of violent crime. You wouldn’t know that the vast majority of police calls are for things like noise complaints. I bet all that gear comes in handy when there’s a cat up a tree, eh, Chief?
You probably could guess that Merkel has come under fire for unapologetically regressive policing. I mean, he looks like he’s about one second away from Tasing the cameraman.
It’s bad enough that Addison County Sheriff Peter Newton filed a report accusing Merkel of multiple misdeeds, to wit: (1) signing official documents with “patently false information,” (2) knowingly failing to report demographic data on VPD traffic stops, and (3) falsely reporting work time and collecting double pay as a result.
(Newton’s report originated in a February meeting that included then-Vergennes mayor Jeff Fritz, an unnamed city alderman, and a sheriff’s officer who formerly served under Merkel. The four, according to VTDigger, “described Merkel as being out of control.”)
Never fear! Attorney General TJ Donovan, the persistent protector of law enforcement, has reviewed a Vermont State Police probe of Newton’s report and concluded — you’ll be shocked, I know — that “there is no evidence to suggest that Chief Merkel acted with intent to defraud” in reporting his work time, and that this concludes concludes “all ongoing investigations regarding Chief Merkel.”
Donovan’s press release — a Friday afternoon newsdump — made no mention of the other two allegations against Merkel. The most serious, to me, is the failure to report demographic data on traffic stops. The Vergennes PD, after all, has a record of racial bias in traffic policing that’s among the worst in Vermont. So there’s a real bad odor around Merkel’s failure to report pertinent data on nearly two-thirds of all his force’s traffic stops in a two-year period.
I guess Donovan, or the VSP, ignored that? The press release is silent.
Donovan’s inaction leaves the city of Vergennes a broken place. Some residents fear the police and want Merkel gone; others support their longtime chief to the hilt.
This may seem outlandish, and uncharacteristic of small-town Vermont society with its vaunted community ties and cherished slash fetishized Town Meeting Day traditions. But there are other Merkels out there. The only questions are, how many? And, since nobody in officialdom seems willing to face this issue, what do we do about it?
Keeping in mind that every unjustified, race-inspired traffic stop is a stab in the heart to our BIPOC neighbors, a disincentive for people to relocate to Vermont, and a stain on our state’s reputation.
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.
Hey, remember when the good folks of Montpelier painted “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in front of the Statehouse, and they got really upset when a guy committed a minor (and easily expunged) act of vandalism on it?
Well, the state of Vermont effectively obliterated the entire thing — with the spilled blood of a Black man. And the promise that “BLACK LIVES MATTER” will remain a well-meaning myth as long as Kenneth Johnson’s life can end so cheaply. And as long as Shamel Alexander gets a measly $30,000 in recompense for his wrongful arrest, conviction and imprisonment by the justice system of our fair state.
Johnson died last December while in custody at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport. According to a report from Vermont’s Defender General Matthew Valerio, Johnson’s death was the slow, painful result of negligence by medical and prison staff.
Valerio’s report, which you can find at the link to Seven Days’ website above, provides more than adequate grounds for termination and criminal prosecution of multiple unnamed staffers. Valerio outlines a case of homicide by professional negligence that’s appalling and inexcusable.
And an example of Your Tax Dollars At Work.
I don’t know what’s the worst part of this. To begin with, Johnson was in prison awaiting trial. He faced some truly heinous charges, but he hadn’t been convicted. He still wound up with a death sentence, thanks to your public servants and their designees. His medical care was botched from the get-go; he had a throat tumor obstructing his airway that could have been treated, but instead he was thought to have a cold or some other minor ailment. His pleadings for care fell on deaf ears.
From the report: “Security video showed Mr. Johnson in various stages of agony. He died after hours of struggling to breathe while nearby nurses did nothing to help… One [nurse] claimed she did not perform adequate checks [on Johnson] ‘because he was so fidgety.'”
Let’s hope this nurse quickly becomes an ex-nurse. She seems more constitutionally suited to a less vital profession, like maybe convenience store cashier or DMV clerk.