DOC Disbands Citizens' Advisory Group That Critics Called "Window Dressing" for Transparency
Andy Pallito was on the hot seat last Thursday at a meeting of the Joint Legislative Corrections Oversight Committee. Vermont’s commissioner of corrections had failed to notify lawmakers that he had disbanded a citizen panel charged with advising his department.
Sen. Dick Sears, who chairs the Legislative Corrections Oversight Committee, first learned of Pallito’s decision via an Associated Press story that ran on July 16.
“I apologize for catching you off-guard,” Pallito told Sears and other lawmakers on the committee. “Frankly, in the realm of things I usually call you on, postponing the Corrections Citizens’ Advisory Group for 60 days didn’t seem like it rose to that level.”
Pallito explained: After he canceled its quarterly meeting scheduled for July 13, a CCAG member accused him of not taking the group seriously and “wasting his time.”
“That’s not the first time I’ve heard a member say ‘It’s a waste of my time,’” Pallito told legislators. “Those are pretty serious comments. So, I decided to put the group on hold, take a step back and see how the department has been utilizing it.”
Current and former CCAG members have complained for years that the group has delivered on few, if any, of its initial promises for more transparency and openness into DOC operations.
Evidently, the frustration runs both ways. Pallito told lawmakers that attendance at CCAG meetings dropped off once the DOC moved its operations from Waterbury to Williston after Tropical Storm Irene. “Frankly, I’ve spent more time managing the media on this issue than really being able to step back and contemplate its overall mission,” he added.
The CCAG was created in 2005 in response to widespread criticism of DOC. In December 2003, the Agency of Human Services hired Montpelier attorney Michael Marks and former New Hampshire attorney general Philip McLaughlin to investigate the deaths of seven Vermont inmates as well as other problems in the correctional system.
In their March 2004 report, Marks and McLaughlin voiced criticism of “a culture within the Department that fails to embrace accountability.”
In its response, the DOC proposed the creation of the CCAG, which, among other things, would be granted “scheduled access to selected correctional facilities and the opportunity to speak to inmates or staff members in the facilities...”
In her email to lawmakers, former CCAG member Laura Ziegler said she participated in CCAG for about three years in the hope of gaining that “special access” to Vermont’s inmates, facilities and records.
“This did not occur. Very little occurred,” Ziegler said. “The Department ran the meetings; there would occasionally be some meaningful dialogue, but the group’s primary purpose seemed to be window dressing.”
Robert Appel, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, concurred with Ziegler’s assessment. Also a founding member of the CCAG, Appel resigned from the group early on largely due to personal concerns about potential conflicts of interest. Appel heads an independent agency that occasionally sues the DOC over issues such as racial discrimination, sexual harassment and failure to allow inmates access to religious observances and diets.
Appel found the few meetings he attended to be “less than meaningful. In other words, it was bullshit.”
“It’s institutional. Government officials, for whatever reason, want to be left alone to do their work,” Appel added. “It always amazes me that, despite the rhetoric that ‘We’re open and transparent,’ allowing everyday citizens to review governmental actions in a formal setting with some authority is resisted.”
CCAG member Gordon Bock of Northfield is a former inmate and an activist with CURE Vermont, the local affiliate of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants. He said the advisory group’s breakup is especially ill-timed given the number of problems at DOC that have come to light in recent months.
Among them, Bock pointed to the Vermont Parole Board’s falsification of an arrest warrant that resulted in convicted murderer Douglas Mason being released from prison three years early. Bock also noted the cancellation, in June, of Vermont’s contract with the Greenfield Jail & House of Detention, which went undisclosed by the DOC until Bock learned of it and alerted the media. And there was the “white paper” documenting substandard living conditions for women in the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington.
“Is this really the time,” Bock asked lawmakers on the joint oversight committee, “for your esteemed committee to be the sole watchdog over DOC?”
But not everyone blames the current commissioner for the CCAG’s shortcomings. Sarah Kenney, associate director for public policy for the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, has been a member from the beginning. She said the group’s effectiveness has always “ebbed and flowed over the years” but has become increasingly dysfunctional.
“In recent years it’s become less a forum for productive conversation about trends within the department and more a place for individuals to come and air their personal grievances with the department,” Kenney said.
At last week’s committee meeting, Sears invited current and former CCAG members to offer suggestions on what a newly constituted CCAG should look like. He also called on DOC staffers to research effective models in other states and get back to him for the committee’s next meeting in September.
Bock knows what he wants the new CCAG to look like. He points to the Vermont State Police Advisory Committee, which has both independence and oversight authority established in law. Better yet, Bock suggested a model similar to the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board, the independent agency empowered to investigate, mediate, make findings and recommend actions about complaints against NYPD cops.
Another possible model for Vermont’s commissioner to consider is in Colorado. In 1995, Dianne Tramutola-Lawson, president of International CURE, helped Colorado’s corrections director create quarterly “citizen advocate meetings” to discuss systemic problems in that state’s prison system.
Unlike Vermont’s CCAG, Colorado’s citizen advocate meetings have no formal membership, Tramutola-Lawson noted. The meetings, which are attended by the director of corrections as well as much of his staff, are open to the public, with agenda items warned in advance. Individual grievances cannot be aired; instead, the group addresses systemic problems only.
How effective are the citizen advocate meetings? Very, Tramutola-Lawson asserted. Just this year, for example, her group convinced the Colorado Department of Corrections to reduce its phone rates for inmates.
“I just think the lines of communication for all of our families and people with loved ones incarcerated have really been streamlined,” she added.
For his part, the HRC’s Appel suggested that an open and effective model for feedback to the DOC is doable in Vermont, too. There’s a delicate balance, he said, between a citizens’ committee that informs policy and provides general direction and guidance, and one that “tries to run the organization.”
“It’s tricky,” he added, “but I don’t think it’s unattainable.”