Prisoners’ Rights Office (PRO)
$1,170,000 (FY 2022)
- The PRO budget is part of the overall budget of the Office of the Defender General.
7 staff members
- As of 2022, the Prisoners’ Rights Office employed four attorneys, including a supervising attorney, two investigators, and one legal assistant.
State Prison Profile
Vermont has 6 state prison facilities subject to PRO oversight and incarcerates approximately 1,300 people in state prisons and one out-of-state facility. Vermont’s incarceration system is unified; there are no separate local jails. The prison system is run by the Vermont Department of Corrections (VDOC).
- Structure: The PRO is part of the Office of the Defender General (ODG). The Defender General is the head of the statewide public defenders’ office in Vermont and is appointed by the Governor for a four-year term. (Sec. 5252)
- Authorized Activities: The PRO’s activities are mainly authorized by the right of people incarcerated, detained, or under community supervision in Vermont to be represented post-conviction (Sec. 5233(a)(3)) and by the mandate for the ODG to investigate deaths and critical incidents in custody, where critical incidents are defined as incidents that require at least 24 hours of hospitalization (Sec. 5259).
- Facility and Information Access: The PRO is granted “reasonable unaccompanied access to correctional facilities,” which in practice in Vermont has meant golden-key access to any facility at any time. The PRO is also granted access to any relevant VDOC records and any involved incarcerated individuals when investigating a death or critical incident. (Sec. 5259).
The core of the PRO’s work is post-conviction legal representation for people who are incarcerated or on probation or parole in Vermont. However, by investigating and informally resolving complaints and concerns of incarcerated people and by carrying out their mandated duty to investigate deaths and critical incidents, the PRO functions to provide oversight of the Vermont prison system much as an Ombuds would. The PRO does not typically generate public materials and therefore does not increase system transparency, though the Defender General and PRO attorneys testify before the Legislature and make recommendations on proposed legislation that would affect people under sentence.
- Complaint Investigation: In the course of its regular work representing individuals post-conviction, the PRO receives complaints and concerns from incarcerated people, their criminal defense attorneys, and their loved ones. The PRO employs two investigators who gather information about these concerns, including accessing records, video, and some cases visiting facilities. The PRO often resolves these complaints informally but also, in its role as a branch of the public defenders, provides legal representation.
- Death and Critical Incident Investigation: The PRO is mandated to investigate deaths in custody as well as suicide attempts, assaults, uses of force, and other incidents that result in at least 24 hours of hospitalization. When investigating deaths and critical incidents, the PRO collects extensive documentation from VDOC including video, phone logs, mail records, and electronic files, and speaks to relevant individuals, including incarcerated people, family members, past attorneys, and VDOC staff.
The PRO does not generate any publicly available reports.
The ODG, the umbrella organization for the PRO, was founded in 1972 to provide legal representation to people charged with serious crimes who could not afford representation. The PRO was expanded in the early 2000s in response to a series of suicides in Vermont prisons, with staff doubling in size from two attorneys and one investigator to four attorneys and two investigators.