Report says Corrections Dept failed to enforce policy

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(Host) A report released on Tuesday says the Vermont Department of Corrections has failed to enforce policies for dealing with at-risk prisoners. The report says the failure may have contributed to the death of an inmate last May.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) Thirty-four-year-old Lawrence Bessette committed suicide at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport. According to an investigation by the non-profit Vermont Protection and Advocacy, Bessette had repeatedly discussed thoughts of suicide with prison mental health providers. The report says Bessette also requested medication to treat depression, but he was never evaluated by a prison psychiatrist, his doctor was never consulted, and he never received medication.

The corrections department has a contract with Matrix Health Systems to provide mental health services in the state’s prisons. But Ed Paquin of Vermont Protection and Advocacy, says the department failed to make sure providers followed corrections policies for dealing with mental health issues.

(Paquin) “What we saw was a pattern that these policies were not either well followed, or even to some degree I don’t believe providers were well aware.”

(Zind) And Paquin says the problems in the corrections system are not isolated and – nine months after Bessette’s death – they still exist.

(Paquin) “We continue to deal with grievances of inmates. We continue to check records on those grievances and we continue to find systemic problems in corrections.”

(Zind) Corrections Commissioner Steven Gold says some steps have already been taken to prevent deaths like Bessette’s, including additional training for corrections employees, and the formation of a task force to look into inmate safety. Gold says at the time of Bessette’s suicide, which was before a new prison opened in Springfield, department resources were extremely taxed.

(Gold) “I think we’re in a better position today, in large part because we have more resources through the opening of the Springfield facility. At the time that Mr. Bessette died we were experiencing extraordinary overcrowding.”

(Zind) Gold says the new report will be helpful to state officials and legislators who are looking into a series of inmate deaths, including three suicides at Vermont prisons last year.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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