• Senate passes bill on prison investigations
     | February 12,2014

    MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate passed a bill Tuesday to clarify the role of the defender general in investigating problems in the state’s prison system, after 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 House. Passage came more than five 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.

    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 now has eight investigators authorized to look into allegations of employee misconduct — five in the Department of Human Resources, which deals with workforce issues throughout state government, and the three devoted to prisons, overseen by the Agency of Human Services, which includes the Department of Corrections.

    The human resources and AHS investigators act on behalf of the state; the defender general’s investigators operate on behalf of the prisoners.

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