BURLINGTON, Vt. – A growing number of Vermonters are calling for immediate change at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility following the publication of a Seven Days article detailing claims of sexual misconduct and drug use by staff members.
At a community forum about the facility, which is Vermont’s only prison for women, four panelists outlined how improvements might be made. One of the panelists was Vermont Department of Corrections Commissioner Mike Touchette, who said he considered resigning after the article was published but now believes he can help fix the situation.
“My moral compass is true,” Touchette said. “I believe the vision I have aligns with where we need to be, I’m committed to that. I still have the energy and the enthusiasm.”
Governor Phil Scott asked Vermont Human Services Secretary Mike Smith to investigate the facility last week. Smith’s office has been in talks with the U.S. Attorneys’ Office to see if they can conduct the investigation. If that isn’t possible, they will look for another outside entity.
As that investigation unfolds, some members of the community want immediate action taken. Martha Tormey, a Burlington resident, singled out Touchette at the forum.
“We’re talking about people who could be being raped tonight,” said Tormey. “It’s really great to get us together for two hours, but this isn’t going to happen in this manner. This is your job.”
Ashley Messier of the ACLU of Vermont was also a panelist, and said she’s spoken with inmates that have been ‘screaming’ about these issues for years. Messier was once incarcerated at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, and had some specific steps she wants to see taken.
“The first line is creating support for these women right now, yesterday, last week,” Messier said. “The second is creating safe spaces for women to report misconduct experiences they’ve had and not only how they’re able to report it but who they’re able to report to.”
Sources in the Seven Days article allege that complaints against prison staff are often ignored by leadership, and guards who raise concerns are punished.
Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George said that could be an area where her office steps in.
“Those cases need to come to us in order for us to know about them, and that wasn’t always happening,” George said. “I think if we change the process of how we get involved, maybe it would change how many cases are brought.”
Women’s March Vermont and ACLU of Vermont co-hosted the forum.