- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 18, 2019

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - The commissioner of the Vermont Department of Corrections resigned, the head of the Agency of Human Services said Wednesday amid scrutiny of the department that began with a media report about problems at the women’s prison in South Burlington.

The resignation of Mike Touchette was contained in a memo sent to staff by Human Services Secretary Mike Smith.

In the memo, Smith said he would recommend to Republican Gov. Phil Scott that the state commission an independent, external investigation that can report within 120 days on conditions in the state’s prisons.

“We are still determining the scope of this investigation and the team to conduct it, but it will be thorough and look deeply into the Department and its operations,” Smith said.

The investigation is intended to “ensure we get an outside perspective on the conditions” within the department, Smith’s memo said.

The day-to-day operations at Vermont’s only women’s prison, the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, is now being overseen by Deputy Corrections Commissioner Judy Henkin, who is reporting directly to Smith.

Smith’s memo also said the agency had set up a hotline so any employee of the department can report sensitive information. Two notices have been sent to supervisors that no form of retribution or retaliation would be tolerated against employees who have communicated, or are thought to have communicated, allegations of misconduct.

Smith said he was also working on other recommendations about staffing, training and “other items that have quickly come to my attention.” He said the recommendations will be delivered to the governor by the end of the week.

Earlier this month the weekly newspaper Seven Days reported what it described as credible allegations of sexual harassment or assault by officers at the women’s prison.

The paper reported that in some cases, correctional officers have pursued sexual relationships with women who have left prison but who remain under supervision by the Department of Corrections. There have also been reports that staff has been retaliated against employees for filing complaints.

Touchette, a 30-year veteran of the Department of Corrections, became commissioner after the November 2018 retirement of former commissioner Lisa Menard.

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