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Human Services Secretary: Prison Abuse Investigation To Begin By Jan. 1

A payphone hangs down over a blue placard with the PREA hotline on it.
Elaine Thompson
Associated Press
In this photo taken Oct. 17, 2014, the PREA hotline is pasted in the Washington Corrections Center For Women in Washington state. The Vermont Human Services Secretary is recommending an external hotline for inmates and guards to report misconduct.

Human Services Secretary Mike Smith is calling for an immediate independent investigation into allegations of sexual abuse and drug use by guards at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, the state's only prison for women.

In a letter to Governor Phil Scott, Smith set out a series of recommendations to enact changes necessary to "make sure Vermont's prisons are safe environments for all inmates and staff."

The recommendations come after an investigation by Seven Days detailed cases of guards sexually abusing inmates. The investigation also found instances of drug use by some prison personnel.

Smith said he wants an independent panel to be appointed by the end of this week, and for an investigation into these issues to begin by Jan. 1.

“I want people outside of state government to look what's going on,” he said. “It will be thorough and look deeply into the Department and its operations, and I'm hoping to wrap that up in the next 120 days.”

More from VPR: Human Services Secretary Responds To Misconduct Allegations At Vermont's Prison For Women [Dec. 5]

Smith also made several legislative proposals, including one to offer greater protections for inmates from sexual abuse. Smith said he thinks current statute is too narrow and should be expanded to protect all people who are "under the supervision" of the Department of Corrections in any capacity.

Smith also wants lawmakers to require ongoing drug testing of all guards. In addition, he would like to update the job qualifications for those positions.

In the meantime, a special hotline is in the midst of being set up for prison inmates and guards to report abuse. It’s expected to be operational by the middle of January.

Smith said the new hotline is needed to ensure there's no retaliation against people who report abuses within the correctional system.

"We have reporting mechanisms that come inside the Department — I'd like to have mechanisms, if there's a complaint or there's sensitive information that people need to report, that it goes outside the department and even outside the Agency of Human Services,” Smith said.

More from VPR: Corrections Commissioner Mike Touchette Leaving Post, Department Under Scrutiny [Dec. 18]

Corrections Commissioner Mike Touchette resigned last week, and Smith named Deputy Corrections Commissioner Judy Henkin as acting commissioner. In his letter to Gov. Scott this week, Smith said he planned to recommend an interim commissioner "as soon as possible" to have in place by Jan. 4.

A permanent commissioner would be appointed after the conclusion of the investigation according to Smith's letter.

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