"We pride ourselves on the safety and security of our inmates," said Mike Touchette of the Vermont Department of Corrections.
Touchette oversees the prison facilities that house 2,118 inmates in Vermont. So, the apparent suicide of an inmate at the state prison in Newport last week has Touchette and his department anxiously awaiting the results of a State Police investigation.
"It's very unsettling for sure," Touchette said. "What we want to do is ensure that we have the best policies, staffing and training resources available so we can mitigate these situations."
Robert Mossey, 38, known to family and friends as R.J., was found unconscious in a mop closet. He apparently hanged himself. The medical examiner's report is still out. And state police are trying to rule out foul play, though that doesn't appear to be the case right now.
"It's tragic and it's sad," said Gordon Bock of CURE Vermont.
Now, prisoners' rights advocates want answers. How did Mossey get into the closet? How did he go unnoticed? And had he been evaluated for mental health issues?
"Obviously, there's a problem with the policy or how it is implemented that led this man, who sought to end his life, to have the opportunity to do so," Bock said.
Vermont saw a spate of inmate suicides about a decade ago. A lawsuit prompted several changes at the state's prisons and more training for staff. Corrections workers are now taught to identify self-harm behaviors. Mental health professionals work at each prison.
"The new windows make it hard for someone to attempt suicide," Touchette said.
And rooms for offenders at higher risk of suicide were upgraded, with windows, beds, lights and desks that make it more difficult for someone to hang themselves. Air vents were also switched out.
"Small vent holes make it more difficult to loop something through there," Touchette said.
Corrections is seeing a rise in self-harm incidents. They've steadily increased since 2008. Last year, 522 were reported. But Corrections officials say the most serious incidents, what they call near fatal injuries, dropped to three in 2012, down from eight the year before.
"Our preventive measures have gone a long way as demonstrated by our statistics," Touchette said.
Mossey's suicide is the first since those changes took effect in 2004. But prisoners' rights advocates say more needs to be done.
"If they were doing absolutely enough, Darren, we wouldn't be having this conversation," Bock said. "R.J. Mossey would be alive right now."
In addition to a state police investigation, state Human Resources will look for potential employee misconduct. An independent review of corrections policies will also be ordered.
R.J. Mossey had a history of petty crime and drugs. He was in jail on a theft charge.
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