Investigation confirms sexual misconduct in women’s prison
An independent investigation released Wednesday found there was a “disturbing degree” of sexual misconduct in Vermont’s only women’s prison.
The state’s Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said he agreed with a series of recommendations in the report that includes increased staff training, stricter laws against sexual conduct between staff and inmates, body cameras for correctional officers and more rapid handling of complaints.
The report also recommended building a new women’s prison.
Speaking at a Wednesday online news conference, Smith said a change was required in the thinking of the people who work in the Department of Corrections.
“I recognize that changing the culture is not easy and it’s not quick, but we really must recognize, I believe, that failure is not an option here,” he said.
The report also recommended asking the Legislature to change the law to allow for random, mandatory drug tests for corrections staff or implement scheduled drug testing as permitted by law.
The state commissioned the report a year ago after the weekly newspaper Seven Days published reporting that described sexual misconduct and drug use involving inmates and correctional officers at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington.
Under Vermont law, sexual contact between inmates and staff is illegal under any circumstances.
Tristram Coffin, a former U.S. attorney for Vermont, helped lead the investigation by the law firm Downs Rachlin Martin. He said he was charged with investigating allegations of sexual harassment and assault at the prison, where about 90 women are currently incarcerated.
“It’s important to note primarily that our investigation largely bore this out to be true and that the allegations (included) significant levels of sexual misconduct,” Coffin said.
The investigation found multiple factors contributed to allowing sexual misconduct to occur and continue, including uneven discipline, problems with process, a lack of training, frequently changing leadership and a lack of surveillance within the prison, he said. Low morale also played a role.
The situation was exacerbated “by a handful of particularly bad actors,” Coffin said, that led to a climate “where sexualized behavior and harassing and retaliatory conduct was more prevalent than any of us would want.”
As part of its work, which was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, investigators interviewed Department of Corrections staff, including correctional officers and case workers. Private investigators also interviewed current and former inmates.
A number of the allegations date back several years and some took place outside the prison after the women had been released from the facility.
“While even a single instance is intolerable, this misconduct occurred to a disturbing degree,” the report said.
Coffin said that ultimately the state should do all it can to reduce the number of women and men in prison by promoting alternatives to incarceration and seeking effective programs to help inmates return to society.
The investigators had full access to the staff and prison records, Coffin said, and acknowledged that life in prisons can be difficult for staff, correctional officers and the inmates.
“We were impressed by the great examples of professionalism, dedication, public service and the willingness to do the right thing that we saw over there,” he said.
The investigation was not designed to develop criminal charges against any of the corrections staff who might have committed crimes.
“We will make sure that the proper authorities follow up on this whether it’s criminal or civil,” Smith said. “I certainly want to make sure those are followed up on.”