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James Baker, the interim commissioner at the Vermont Department of Corrections, decried the widespread sexualization among prison staff. Citing the incidences as ‘shocking’, Baker made this observation in a video conference with the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee.

The meeting took place on August 20, 2020, during which time Baker spoke openly with the lawmakers on the current state of the prison and the personnel that he is tasked with overseeing.

Improving prison standards and departmental accountability

Baker’s disclosure was part of his message on the ongoing efforts to improve prison standards and accountability within his department. He assumed his current position as interim commissioner in January 2020.

Baker assumed the role of corrections commissioner following the resignation of Mike Tocuhette in December. The former head of the department, Tocuhette resigned after making similar allegations against prison employees.

The Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee consists of members of the House as well as the Senate. Although Baker discussed the matter candidly with the committee, he stopped short of mentioning the names of anyone involved to maintain their privacy.

Even so, Baker said that as many as six prison staff members have been dismissed or opted to resign since he assumed the position as commissioner. Baker noted that four of these staffers were dismissed as a direct result of actions related to sexualization. He stated that three of the staff members were now facing criminal proceedings that sought to investigate their involvement in alleged sexual activity.

Commissioner Baker admits that the incidents have caught him off guard. Saying that he was still “struggling” to figure everything out, Baker said that he was currently discussing the matter with some of the “best minds” in the country.

Other sexual misconduct allegations

These latest allegations followed earlier reports of harassment and sexual abuse by corrections personnel at South Burlington’s Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. The only women’s prison in Vermont, Chittenden was also beset with reports of drug use among prison staff.

In June 2020, the prison was the subject of another scandal involving a community corrections officer named Joshua Ross. A Brattleboro resident, Ross is still facing a criminal case due to allegations of paying for sex with a female prisoner under his supervision.

In the video meeting with the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee, Baker mentioned yet another staff member who was dismissed on the same day he was scheduled to graduate from the Vermont Correctional Academy.

Baker again declined to provide more details on the case and the accused, saying that it was still undergoing internal investigation. However, the commissioner did say that the case involved the solicitation of sex from a classmate.

Baker is understandably upset at these occurrences, saying that prison staff “has got to do better than this.” The commissioner meets with the prison’s human resources personnel every two weeks to discuss internal affairs issues.

Commissioner Baker lauded for openness

The members of the House and Senate did laud Baker for his efforts to address the various issues plaguing the department. Rep. Charles “Butch” Shaw (R-Pittsford), who is a member of the committee, appreciated Baker’s willingness to discuss the problems and not just “sweep it under the rug”. Shaw expressed his hope that Baker’s disclosures would herald the breaking down of the “old-boy cycle” within the prison system.

The chair of the committee, Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), also appreciated Baker’s willingness to confront the issue head-on. Although displeased with the report, Sears thought that Baker’s honesty was “refreshing”.

Committee vice-chair Rep. Alice Emmons (D-Springfield) shared similar sentiments. The representative had previously observed legislative testimony in which certain issues were not reported due to the culture of silence among prison staff.

Baker, for his part, cited the importance of acknowledging problems when they occur so that they can be fixed. The commissioner’s desire to solve these issues is what led to the public acknowledgment.

Commissioner Baker also mentioned the many staff members who have not been remiss in performing their duties. Citing the bravery of their efforts, Baker praised these employees for carrying on under the most challenging situations, particularly during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Even so, the commissioner acknowledged that a lot of work had yet to be done. He discussed ongoing efforts to increase accountability among prison staff and implement steps to improve the hiring process. Among the measures being undertaken in this regard are more stringent background checks and psychological screening. The commissioner also mentioned the establishment of the Office of Professional Standards.

Management’s responsibility

But not everyone was satisfied with the exchange. Steve Howard, who is the executive director of the Vermont State Employees Association, said that the issues stemmed from the corrections management failure to do its job. The head of the union representing over 800 corrections employees, Howard noted that management is largely responsible for creating “a corrections system (with) serious problems.”

Howard went on to discuss the practice of removing prison superintendents from their posts for specific allegations, only to be assigned a new position in the central office of the department. For Howard, the failure to address the reason for the superintendents’ removal was a big part of the problem.

Howard did agree that improving hiring standards is essential for improving conditions within the Department of Corrections. He also said that Commissioner Baker has been sympathetic to the concerns of the Vermont State Employees Association members. However, he firmly believed that Commissioner Baker had to “clear out” many of the central office managers and that a “big bold change” is necessary to improve the culture of the correction system.