MONTPELIER -- Corrections officers and other prison staff in Vermont soon will be subject to search as they enter the facilities in an effort to curb drugs and other contraband.
Deputy Corrections Commissioner Lisa Menard and other department officials appeared before the legislative committee that oversees the prison system Thursday to update lawmakers on the progress of developing the new guidelines for the searches, which are expected to go into effect next winter.
Michael Touchette, director of facilities for the Corrections Department, said the department had recorded more than 200 cases of contraband entering the prisons in each of the three years ending in 2012, the most recent for which data were available. He said a tiny minority of the cases involved staff.
Gordon Bock, director of the prisoners’ rights CURE-Vermont, said he believes it’s more common.
"It’s about time," he said of the move to search staff members. "The open secret for years has been that it isn’t just visitors and prisoners who are involved in getting contraband into the facilities."
Details on the intensity of the searches remain a question. A law passed this spring called for "searches of personal belongings" of corrections officers and other staff as they enter secure parts of the prisons. Both Dave Bellini, corrections unit chairman with the Vermont State Employees’ Association, and Menard said the searches would not involve physical contact in the case of staff members.
A letter from Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito to the Joint Corrections Oversight Committee said "it is necessary to conduct searches of all persons and their property and all areas of a correctional facility in order to deter the introduction of contraband and to locate contraband."
There are logistical and financial considerations with the new searches. Bellini said staff would be required to conduct the new searches, and added that any time added to a corrections officer’s shift for the search would require overtime pay.
Menard said department officials are trying to get a firmer handle on the amounts of contraband entering the facilities and the methods used before the new rules go into effect.
"The purpose of developing the baseline is ... so that we can better understand what is the scope of the issue, and then we can measure once we start searching staff. Did it change? Has it changed at all?" Menard said.