Groups Rally for Prisoners’ Rights

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(Host) Vermont is one of only four states that does not make it a crime for prison guards to have sexual contact with prison inmates. Human rights activists plan to gather at the Statehouse Wednesday to rally for legislation that would protect prison inmates.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The groups that support the prisoner sexual assault legislation say Vermont is well behind other states in terms of protecting prisoners from sexual abuse by guards. The groups blame the Vermont State Employees Union. They say the union wants weaker legislation that wouldn’t do enough to protect prison inmates.

Rebecca Boucher is a second year student at Vermont Law School and helped organize the rally. Boucher doesn’t have statistics on sexual abuse by guards in Vermont’s prisons. She says an investigation into the issue several years ago by Amnesty International did not include Vermont:

(Boucher) “But we do know that this process is handled by internal regulation and policies by the Department of Corrections. And we don’t believe that those policies are adequate to actually report what’s going on in the prisons here.”

(Dillon) The activists plan to take their protest from the Statehouse to the State Employees’ Union headquarters nearby.

Boucher says the union wants to add two years to the sentence of an inmate who makes a false accusation of abuse. She says that provision is not needed, since it’s a already a crime to provide false information to authorities:

(Boucher) “So to include a false reporting penalty piece within this section of the code would create a chilling effect, it would be incredibly stigmatizing for an inmate. And no inmate would dare accuse a guard in a `he said – she said’ situation with a threat of an increased penalty.”

(Dillon) The State Employees’ Union says it does support legislation that would make it a crime for guards to sexually abuse inmates. Under the bill, corrections officers could get 15 years in jail for sexually assaulting an inmate.

But the Union’s director, Annie Noonan, says the legislation must include the provision to penalize prisoners for making false accusations. She says that several years ago the Labor Relations Board found that female inmates lied about exposing themselves to guards in exchange for favors inside prison. Yet she says the inmates were never held responsible:

(Noonan) “If there’s no penalty for them lying, then there’s no disincentive for them to lie. And it’s often used as manipulation against employees or as a threat against employees. And we think that the people rallying for inmates rights don’t really give a damn about workers’ rights.”

(Dillon) The Legislation on sexual abuse of inmates is now pending in the Senate.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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