Vt. prison staff to face drug searches
By DAVE GRAM
The Associated Press | August 15,2014
MONTPELIER — Corrections officers and other prison staff in Vermont will soon be subject to searches 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. They updated lawmakers on the progress of developing guidelines for the searches, which are expected to go into effect this 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 year for which data is available. He said a tiny minority of the cases involved staff.
However, Gordon Bock, director of the prisoners’ rights group CURE-Vermont, said he believes smuggling involving staff is more common than that.
“It’s about time,” Bock said Thursday. “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 Menard and Dave Bellini, corrections unit chairman with the Vermont State Employees’ Association, said the searches would not involve frisking of staff members. Menard said employees’ property would be searched, and could involve metal detectors.
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 searches, and time added to a corrections officer’s shift for the searches would require overtime pay.
Menard said department officials are trying to get a firmer handle on the amount 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,” Menard said. “Did it change? Has it changed at all?”