Tag Archives: Matthew Valerio

The Corrections Culture

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.

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Dick Sears moves the target

Interesting piece by the Associated Press’ Dave Gram (now serving as the Burlington Free Press’ de facto Statehouse Bureau) about legislative consideration of the state’s troubled sex offender registry. 

As you may recall, state law requires that the registry pass a “clean audit” before offenders’ addresses can be posted online. And the registry has failed two audits. The most recent, issued last summer, found “critical errors” in 11 percent of cases.

Not good.

But maybe, just maybe good enough for Dick Sears, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and a man determined to get those addresses online. He has said there should be a zero percent error rate on the fundamentals, such as whether an individual should be on the registry in the first place. He said so again last Friday, according to Gram.

But he told a different story at a Judiciary Committee meeting on January 8:

“You can’t keep waiting for a positive audit, without defining what a positive audit is. If we were to define (the error rate), it would probably be 10 percent,” Sears said, according to a recording of the session.

Defender General Matthew Valerio interjected, “Or 5, or 2.”

Sears added, “Or 5 or 2 or 1 (percent).”

That first statement, quickly amended, is pretty damn alarming. He redefined “a positive audit” as reporting a 10 percent error rate? 

Yikes.

While he immediately parroted Valerio’s words, his original statement is still hanging out there: “a positive audit… would probably be 10 percent.”

Sears then acknowledged that perfection might be impossible to attain: “Human beings enter the information.”

He’s right, of course. The problem is, posting the addresses of people labeled as sex offenders is a huge deal with potentially massive consequences. What if a person is wrongly labeled? What if an offender moves frequently, as is often the case, and an old address stays on the list? How about the new resident at that address?

Sears is dead set on getting those addresses online. And it sounds like he’s lowering his standards in order to achieve his goal. Let’s hope we don’t see a bill emerging from his committee that redefines a “clean audit” as an error rate of 10 percent or less.

Postscript. This story is one small sign of the diminishment of our Statehouse press corps. The key event occurred almost three weeks ago, and was not reported at the time. Gram retrieved the Sears comments from the official recording of the January 8 hearing.

As far as can be told, no reporters actually attended the hearing. Now, hearings go on every day, and Gov. Shumlin was inaugurated on January 8. Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that no reporters attended the committee hearing. But it’s an indication of how thin our Statehouse coverage is, and how many stories go unreported that are well worth our time and attention.