(Host) The Douglas administration will work with key lawmakers on an independent investigation into the unusual number of deaths inside Vermont prisons. The call for an investigation came as a legislative oversight committee heard more allegations about a recent inmate suicide. Witnesses also told the committee that inmates and staff who complain can experience retaliation by corrections officials.
VPR’s John Dillon reports.
(Dillon) The legislative Corrections Oversight Committee is looking into three suicides and at least three other unusual inmate deaths over the past year. The committee had barely started work on Tuesday when Human Services Secretary Charles Smith promised full cooperation with an independent investigation.
(Smith) “The overriding point that I’d like to make, and I’m sure I speak for the governor on this as well as for myself, we are indeed very concerned about the deaths and the suicides that have occurred in the system.”
(Dillon) The most recent suicide came last month when James Quigley hanged himself at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans. Quigley had been in solitary confinement for 118 days after being transferred from the state prison in Newport.
Barry Kade, an attorney from Montgomery who says he knew Quigley well, said the inmate was a jailhouse lawyer who got on the wrong side of corrections officials. Kade told the committee that Quigley wasn’t at all suicidal, but that he was driven to kill himself by his lengthy period in solitary confinement.
(Kade) “It is the 120 or 30 days that he spent in isolation, in punitive segregation, whatever they call it. It was punitive segregation, that’s what drove him to suicide. He was the least suicidal inmate in Newport prior to the retaliatory measures. He was the strongest inmate I’ve ever come across.”
(Panelist) “So in your opinion, that’s what drove to him to the suicide?”
(Kade) “I will state that as fact. There’s no doubt in my mind, that’s what drove him to suicide, was the treatment that he got.”
(Dillon) Corrections Commissioner Steve Gold said he welcomed the investigation. But he said it was too soon to come to the conclusion that Quigley’s death was caused by conditions inside the prison.
(Gold) “I know that was the perspective that was shared here. I’m not sure that was all the information that’s out there with what was going on with Mr. Quigley.”
(Dillon) A corrections officer from Newport also testified that he was told his career would suffer if he spoke out about prison policies. Committee chairman Senator Dick Sears, a Bennington County Democrat, asked the officer to provide any memos or e-mails that document these allegations.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.