Report on inmate deaths places partial blame with state

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(Host) An investigation into the deaths of seven Vermont prison inmates says that the state may be partially to blame in at least two of the cases. The state requested the investigation late last year. And Human Services Secretary Charles Smith on Tuesday promised to do whatever it takes to improve Vermont’s prison system.

VPR’s John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) The investigation was conducted by Montpelier lawyer Michael Marks, and former New Hampshire Attorney General Philip McLaughlin. The two were asked to dig into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of seven inmates in state custody over the past two years. Their report presents a portrait of an overcrowded and over-stressed prison system that fails to hold itself accountable when things go wrong.

The investigation concludes that the state was probably not responsible for four of the deaths last year. These include two drug overdoses, a suicide, and a death of an inmate from AIDS.

But the report indicates the state is partly responsible for two and possibly three of the other deaths. In one case, inmate James Quigley was placed in solitary confinement for almost four months, apparently because he frequently filed complaints for himself and other inmates. Quigley hanged himself at the St. Albans correction facility in October of last year, his 118th day in solitary confinement.

(Charles Smith) “The Quigley case in my opinion raises the most serious concerns.”

(Dillon) Human Services Secretary Charles Smith:

(Smith) “There are real implications of retaliation for his activities as a jailhouse lawyer and so forth. There’s some very troubling indications in that case and in one other around physical health issues and the failure of the system to be responsive for somebody’s request for physical health treatment.”

(Dillon) Smith was referring to the medical care given to inmate Neil Prentiss in late 2002. Prentiss was 48 and was incarcerated at the Chittenden facility in South Burlington. The inmate had a number of documented serious health problems, including hepatitis, poor circulation, and a brain injury.

Prentiss made numerous requests for treatment and medication over a two-week period. Most of the requests went unanswered. The report says one corrections officer admitted that he waited a few days to call a nurse because he concluded that Prentiss probably had a common cold.

But his condition was far more serious. After a severe episode of stomach pain, fever and chronic diarrhea, he was taken to the emergency room at Fletcher Allen hospital. Later he was moved to the Lahey Clinic outside of Boston, where he died on November 23, 2002. The two attorneys who investigated the death concluded, “We have not found any satisfactory explanation for the quality and the timeliness of the care given to Mr. Prentiss.” And their report says the state failed to adequately investigate this case and others. Secretary Smith believes the report’s conclusions are true.

(Smith) “I do believe it is accurate to say there is a failure in the system to embrace accountability.”

(Dillon) The third case in which the state may be partly to blame involves a prisoner who died from a prescription drug overdose. The investigators found that officials failed to prevent inmates from hoarding drugs. Smith says he’s ready to make broad changes, from new procedures for inmate care to disciplining personnel.

(Smith) “I would say that all remedies are on the table here as far as I’m concerned. We have a serious matter on our hands, and we need to be aggressive in coming to grips with the management issues. We’re not going to be reluctant to do what we need to do to get the system straightened out.”

(Dillon) The report also makes a number of recommendations. These include measures to deal with the backlog in prisoner medical care, more controls on solitary confinement, and steps to stop the flow of drugs into prisons.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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