Interim corrections chief briefs lawmakers

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MONTPELIER — James Baker, the newly appointed interim commissioner of the Vermont Department of Corrections, appeared before the Vermont Senate's Judiciary Committee on Thursday, his fourth day in the role.

Baker replaced Mike Touchette, who resigned as the department's commissioner last month after Seven Days published an article detailing allegations of sexual misconduct and drug abuse by officers at the state's only prison for women, Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington.

"It's a daunting task to be responsible for the folks that are incarcerated," Baker, of Arlington, told the committee, which is chaired by Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington.

Baker will hold the position for about 120 days, the expected duration of an outside investigation of the department led by Tristram Coffin, a former U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont.

"I'm pretty lucky to have him as the interim commissioner," Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, which includes the corrections department, said at the meeting Thursday.

Baker, a former Vermont State Police director who lives in Arlington, said he met with the department's senior staff on Monday, Jan. 6. "There was a lot of emotion in that room," he said. "Some of them were pretty demoralized."

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"We have good people" working for the department, Baker said, including officers at facilities who are forced to work overtime, a state of affairs he called "not healthy."

Baker met for about two hours the prior week with Touchette and planned to visit Chittenden Regional on Friday, he said.

The interim commissioner told lawmakers that his role is "to stabilize the ship, try to build people back up, hold people accountable" and allow the outside investigation to proceed.

In recent years, Baker has led the Arlington Area Renewal Project, a community revitalization effort. He is currently a member of the consultant team hired last year by the town of Bennington to assess its police department's polices and procedures.

Baker has also served as director of the Vermont Police Academy and police chief of Manchester and Rutland.

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