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Innovative Vermont Prison Superintendent’s Demotion for Sexist Language Proves Controversial

by Jayson Hawkins

Former Vermont prison Superintendent Ed Adams has found himself the subject of repeated media scrutiny over the last few years, and his story is illustrative of the problems that surround prison reform, public records availability, and bridging the often jarring disconnect between societal norms and prison reality.

Adams worked as a guard for well over a decade before rising to become senior superintendent of Vermont’s only female prison in 2013. A few years later, he took over administration of the Southern State Correctional Facility, the state’s second largest prison. In 2016, he earned Department of Corrections manager of the year honors, and all the way through April 2018, his performance evaluations showed an overall assessment of “outstanding,” the highest grade given.

But Adams had been dogged by allegations of sexual harassment while running the women’s prison, and at the Southern State facility he was repeatedly accused of “creating a hostile work environment” through his reported use of sexist language, inappropriate sexual comments, and threats of retaliation toward prison staff, Vermont Digger reported in March 2020.

In September 2018, he was placed on administrative leave, and three months later, he accepted a demotion to probation officer at close to his former salary.

Adams’ tale highlights three issues that relate to prison officials specifically and the public sector in general. The first is the availability of the personnel records of state employees for public scrutiny and even for the use of the employee in question. The Vermont Journalism Trust fought for 18 months to obtain the release of information relating to the complaints against Adams, and the records were only made public in December 2019 after Adams himself consented to their release. The heavily redacted documents contained the records of the deal between Adams and the state to end the litigation, but the final report of the investigation against him was so confidential that Adams had not even seen it before it was released.

While no one would argue against the importance of protecting the privacy of public employees, sometimes that imperative can be confounded with a bureaucratic desire to keep the dirty laundry secret. The Vermont state employees union and the DOC both intervened in the public records lawsuit after the state Human Services secretary announced his plan to release the documents because of the inherent public interest in revealing abuse in the prison system. It was only when Adams agreed to drop his protest that the records were released, but by that time over a year had passed and public attention was elsewhere.

The complaints against Adams also point up the discrepancy between prison realities and the professional standards adhered to by most of society. Adams did not flatly deny making crude and sexist comments. Instead, he told investigators that in the work environment of prison, joking about rape was acceptable. In regard to such comments, Adams said, “We have a bad sense of humor.”

The jarring disconnect between prison standards and societal norms contained within that statement shines a penetrating light on why reformist pressure has failed to reach inside prison walls.

But it is equally important to note that it was staff, not prisoners, who complained about Adams. His record shows a willingness to try new and innovative policies that humanized prison operations. He dramatically decreased solitary confinement at the women’s prison, and at Southern State he tried to incentivize good behavior. Adams contends that the complaints against him were the result of his demanding humanity and accountability from staff. While he ran the prison, use of force by guards dropped, and some staff thought he was soft on prisoners. Adams looked back and said, “I was naive to think I could get everyone on board.” Instead, staff hostile to his ideas weaponized his salty and crude language into complaints that would eventually lead to his removal.

The complexity of this tale shows how many elements are at play in the operation of a prison and public attempts to hold prison officials accountable, but more importantly, it shows the importance of transparency in the public sector. 

 

Sources: vtdigger.org, vnews.com