Corrections Commissioner Nick Deml began his testimony in front of the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions on Tuesday by invoking his time serving in Afghanistan.
That service, he suggested, allowed him to empathize with the crisis currently facing frontline staff in Vermont's prisons.
“They’re there every night. It’s scary. It can be dark. It’s awfully loud. But you don’t know what that next moment is,” Deml said, visibly overcome with emotion.
Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield, the committee chair, encouraged him to take his time.
“We need to be there for them,” he continued, choking up, “and we’re not doing a good enough job.”
The day before, the Vermont State Employees’ Association had made public a letter staff at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport had sent to Deml. It notified the commissioner of a vote of no confidence in the facility’s interim superintendent, Lori Madden, alleging that she had created a “toxic environment” for staff and people incarcerated there.
While the Newport letter went unmentioned in Deml’s testimony, he did discuss staffing levels and staff schedules. Four of Vermont’s six correctional facilities have voted in overwhelming numbers to move to a “50-50” schedule, in which officers work seven 12-hour shifts during a period of two weeks, he said, suggesting the move has proved positive.
Citing an as-yet-unpublished department survey, Deml told lawmakers that 68% of security staff said they enjoy their job, and 61% said they have opportunities for career advancement. Staff “are reporting that they have much more predictability in their schedule,” he added, noting that results from the survey would be made public once they’d been shared with corrections department staff.
Though moved by the commissioner’s emotion, legislators were less convinced by his secret survey.
“I want to start by appreciating the vulnerability that you brought into the room when you first sat down,” Rep. Troy Headrick, P/D-Burlington, began. “That being said — and I don’t want to do a ‘however,’ — but I’m going to do a ‘however.’”
Headrick suggested that corrections leaders have become so focused on boosting morale among security staff that they might be ignoring the impact their changes had made. As lawmakers heard on Tuesday, staff are still frequently working 16-hour shifts, forced into overtime despite the attempt to move to the 50-50 schedule.
Rep. Tristan Roberts, D-Halifax, too, thanked Deml for his emotion. “But as in Afghanistan, there can be mismanagement,” he noted.
Committee members also bristled, however, when the voice of corrections department rank-and-file, Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association, took the witness chair.
“We are destroying the lives of our correctional officers,” Howard said, suggesting that the gap between management and frontline staff is only growing.
“I’m concerned that the chasm has something to do with your one-sided testimony,” Roberts retorted.
When Howard suggested a lack of response from Gov. Phil Scott has forced the union to make its case in the press, Rep. Gina Galfetti, R-Barre Town, responded, “Then why are you here, if the press corp is effective in getting you a response?”
Howard began responding but Galfetti interjected.
“No, I’m not going to let you finish,” she said. “The commissioner is clearly saying that he hears all the same issues that you’re hearing. He testified quite passionately about that today.”
Afternoon becoming evening, the committee prepared to move on. But only for the day, Emmons reminded her colleagues.
“I’m sure this conversation will continue, at some point, in some way, in some manner.”
— Ethan Weinstein
IN THE KNOW
Vermont lawmakers have put forth a proposal to restrict public dollars to private schools, a plan that could dramatically transform the state’s educational landscape if enacted.
A bill introduced in the Vermont Senate on Tuesday would prohibit most of the state’s private schools from receiving public tuition money, with the only exceptions being schools that serve students with disabilities and four historic institutions.
The bill would “ensure that public funding and public education are paired together in every case,” Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, one of the bill’s sponsors, said in an interview. “And that there's public oversight of public dollars, and that our public schools are prioritized in our state K-12 education system.”
— Peter D’Auria
Two weeks after state leaders extended local Covid-19-era voting options, 175 of Vermont’s 247 municipalities have decided to resume in-person March Town Meetings, according to a VTDigger survey.
“We are back to business as usual,” said Teri Gray, clerk in the Northeast Kingdom town of Charleston.
In comparison, some 60 communities will cast ballots rather than return to shoulder-to-shoulder decision-making.
“We are usually a floor-vote town,” said Becky Fielder, clerk in Pomfret, “but with recent local Covid outbreaks the selectboard thought it prudent to postpone the in-person vote one more year.”
— Kevin O’Connor
A recent project in Addison County has created living space for 24 farm workers in a high efficiency, all-electric, prefabricated triplex.
“Farmworkers are absolutely thrilled and the farmers have been really happy,” Peter Schneider, a senior consultant at Vermont Energy Investment Corporation and Efficiency Vermont, said during a brief presentation to the Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday morning.
“So this is what we can do across the state with the proper funding and the proper partnerships,” he told lawmakers.
The organizations are currently in the process of setting up similar modular units at farms in Franklin County and in central Vermont.
Farmworker housing is a critical part of Vermont’s housing crisis that lawmakers are looking to address. A 2021 report found farmworker living spaces and conditions well below acceptable safety and sanitary standards.
— Auditi Guha
ON THE MOVE
The House Judiciary Committee by a 9-1 vote on Tuesday approved H.89, a shield law intended to protect patients and providers of reproductive health care from out-of-state legal action and investigation.
The bill now heads to the House floor for a full vote before the Senate takes it up. Republican Gov. Phil Scott has consistently told reporters that he supports the spirit of the bill, but hasn’t weighed in on its specifics.
Much of the committee’s deliberations on H.89 have revolved around the national abortion landscape post-Roe, and how the bill would protect Vermont doctors from investigation, extradition and arrest should they provide abortions to patients who travel to Vermont for care from states where the procedure is outlawed. The bill is relatively limited in how it could safeguard patients, though it would offer some level of protection by preventing Vermonters from being forced to testify in a lawsuit against the patient.
But on Tuesday, House Judiciary Chair Martin LaLonde, D-South Burlington, turned the focus on another type of health care the bill seeks to protect: gender-affirming care for transgender patients. LaLonde cited statistics from the Trevor Project — a national LGBTQ+ advocacy group — to his colleagues, saying that LGBTQ+ children nationwide are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide compared to their peers.
Beginning to cry, LaLonde said state lawmakers have a duty to make Vermont a “safe harbor” for LGBTQ+ people.
“We need to be available for those folks,” he said.
— Sarah Mearhoff
ON THE HILL
First-term U.S. Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt., has finally received her second committee assignment, landing on the House Budget Committee.
The Democrat’s first few weeks in Washington have been tumultuous, with a historic intra-party battle over Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s speakership delaying the usual business of committee assignments — and eventually, actual hearings and legislative work — for weeks.
“It is critical that the budget addresses our country’s most pressing challenge and reflect the values of American families,” Balint said in a Tuesday morning press release. “We need to use every tool at our disposal to get closer to a more just and equitable economy that works for everyone.”
Late last month, Balint scored her “dream” post to the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, following her predecessor in the House, U.S. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who served on House Oversight beginning in 2007. Balint sat in her first hearing on that committee last week.
— Sarah Mearhoff
IF YOU’VE MADE IT THIS FAR
Haters gonna hate.
Girl Scout Cookies are still $5 a box, this former scout learned today. However, patrons of Chief Romei were irked by what they allege are smaller cookies. I believe that’s called shrinkflation.
— Sarah Mearhoff
WHAT WE’RE READING
FTX debtors call on politicians, parties and PACs to return campaign contributions (VTDigger)
Despite state support, Vermonters struggle to find housing after prison (VTDigger)
People who spent time in Vt. foster care can't access their own records. Is it time to change that? (Vermont Public)
Contaminated cannabis prompts Vermont Control Board chair to call for state testing lab (VTDigger)
Clarification: An earlier version of this story imprecisely described a portion of Steve Howard's testimony.
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