Editor's note: This commentary is the Women's Legislative Caucus' response to the alleged sexual abuse and mistreatment of women prisoners in Vermont. Caucus members who signed are listed at the end of the piece.
Allegations of physical and sexual abuse and the harassment of incarcerated women by some correctional officers at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF) are extremely disturbing. We, the undersigned members of the Women’s Legislative Caucus, are also alarmed by the alleged continued exploitation of women post-release. We support a full investigation by the Administration, with appropriate support from the Attorney General’s office and the Legislature.
The Women’s Legislative Caucus has made the issue of women’s incarceration and justice-involvement its central policy consideration over the current biennium. Face-to-face listening sessions with the incarcerated women at CRCF during the past year have informed this priority.
Responding to current media reports, we are heartened by the quick actions of the leadership of the Agency of Human Services and the seriousness with which they have prioritized the alleged claims. We urge Secretary Mike Smith and his investigators to leave no stone unturned in conducting a comprehensive probe. Simultaneously, we ask that the investigation include an evaluation of the long-standing systems within Vermont prisons that have contributed to deteriorating conditions for justice-involved women over the past decade.
While it’s easy to focus blame upon a handful of horrendous actors, our intention within the Women’s Legislative Caucus is to use this difficult moment as a tipping point for positive change.
This is an opportunity to shift our approach to corrections in Vermont, moving from a punitive system to an approach that truly rehabilitates, is gender-responsive and trauma-informed, and creates the conditions for successful reentry for both women and men.
As legislators, we acknowledge our policymaking role in this long-term endeavor. We commit to working through the committees of jurisdiction -- the House Corrections and Institutions Committee and the Senate Institutions and Judiciary Committees -- towards alternatives to incarceration; programming that improves personal wellness, develops skills and increases employability; increased transitional housing; and comprehensive reentry planning, among other constructive policies.
We also assume responsibility for policy-setting that fosters healthy working conditions for the hundreds of state employees in the Department of Corrections who have conducted themselves with respect and integrity.
We are not interested in quick, easy answers, nor political sound bites. We want a complete evaluation and substantive recommendations. We can use this moment as a clarion call, and together create a safer, healthier environment with more favorable outcomes across the Department of Corrections.
Sen. Becca Balint, Windham District
Rep. Lynn Batchelor, Derby Line, Chair
Rep. Jessica Brumsted, Shelburne
Rep. Mollie S. Burke, Brattleboro, Chair
Rep. Brian Cina, Burlington
Sen. Alison Clarkson, Windsor District
Rep. Sara Coffey, Guilford
Rep. Selene Colburn, Burlington
Rep. Mari Cordes RN, Lincoln
Rep. Kari Dolan, Waitsfield
Rep. Caleb Elder, Starksboro
Rep. Charen Fegard, Berkshire
Sen. Ruth Hardy, Addison District
Sen. Cheryl M. Hooker, Rutland District
Rep. Mary Hooper, Montpelier
Rep. Lori Houghton, Essex Junction
Sen. Debbie Ingram, Chittenden District
Rep. Kathleen James, Manchester
Rep. Stephanie Jerome, Brandon
Rep. Kimberly Jessup, Middlesex
Rep. John Killacky, South Burlington
Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, Brattleboro
Rep. Jill Krowinski, Burlington
Rep. Emily Long, Newfane
Sen. Virginia Lyons, Chittenden District
Rep. Carol Ode, Burlington
Rep. Jean O’Sullivan, Burlington, Chair
Rep. Kelly Pajala, Londonderry
Rep. Ann Pugh, South Burlington
Rep. Barbara Rachelson, Burlington
Rep. Zachariah Ralph, Hartland
Rep. Marybeth Redmond, Essex
Rep. Robin Scheu, Middlebury
Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan, Dorset
Rep. Mary Sullivan, Burlington
Rep. Rebecca White, Hartford
Rep. Theresa Wood, Waterbury