DAVE GRAM, Associated Press
MONTPELIER -- The Vermont Senate on Tuesday passed a bill to clarify the role of the defender general in investigating problems in Vermont’s prison system, following complaints the office was hampered in investigating a prison suicide last year.
The measure passed without debate on a voice vote and now goes to the state House. Passage came more than 5 months after inmate Robert Mossey, 38, of Burlington, hanged himself in a mop closet at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport.
Complaints that the prisoners’ rights division of the defender general’s office was hampered in its investigation of Mossey’s death were first aired at a meeting of the Legislature’s Joint Corrections Oversight Committee in November.
In an interview this week, Defender General Matt Valerio said he had a heated meeting with a lawyer for the Department of Human Resources and other officials last year over a trend he was seeing in which his office’s investigations were being hampered by that department. Valerio said he could not recall if the meeting came before or after Mossey’s death.
Mossey had been serving time for a probation violation following earlier convictions for property crimes to support a drug habit, his father has said.
Sen. Richard Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the corrections oversight panel, said in an interview that the prisoners’ rights office needs unfettered access to Corrections Department records and the ability to interview inmates in its investigations.
"This bill deals with the right of the prisoners’ rights office of the defender general to be able to access records and testimony from various offenders. Because in reality the defender general is the law service for all persons who have been placed in corrections custody," the Bennington County Democrat said.
Valerio said state law already gave his office sufficient authority; he said he hoped the bill would clarify that.
The state created three new investigator positions focused on prisons after a spate of seven suicides about a decade ago. Just before he left office in 2010, Gov. James Douglas shifted those investigators to the Department of Human Resources to investigate allegations of employee misconduct across state government, Sears said.
Human Resources Commissioner Kate Duffy said the positions recently had been shifted back to focus on prisons, but that her office was adding positions to make up for the shift.
The human resources investigators act on behalf of the state, the defender general’s investigators operate on behalf of the prisoners.
Duffy said the administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin had no objection to the defender general having robust investigative powers. She said her only concern was "making sure law enforcement has the first crack at people, and that anything the defender general does doesn’t interfere with a criminal investigation. But that’s in the bill now, so we’re good."