"I could tell in his voice he was so depressed," Ellie Jimmo said. "So distraught."
The day before Ellie Jimmo's son, R.J. Mossey, hanged himself in the state prison in Newport, he called to say goodbye.
"He was a good boy," Jimmo said.
His suicide broke her heart and left this mother scrambling to come up with more than $1,000 to claim and bury his body. Without the cash, Jimmo worried her son's remains would end up in the state prison cemetery in Windsor.
"It would be like burying him in jail for eternity," she said. "I just don't get how they could do something like that. It's so inhumane."
"This cemetery, in my opinion, is the last chance cemetery," said Dave Bovat, the superintendent of the Southeast State Correctional Facility.
Vermont inmates who die in prison end up in the state prison cemetery if their bodies go unclaimed, either because of finances or severed family ties.
"Unfortunately, someone who needs to be buried in a state cemetery doesn't have a lot of support on the outside," Bovat said.
About seven inmates die behind bars in Vermont each year, most due to health complications or old age. And most bodies are claimed.
"We really have custody of people and we are responsible for them up until the day they die and beyond that in some cases," Vermont Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito said.
There are 38 people buried at the prison cemetery in Windsor. The first was Louis Meeker, a murderer executed in 1893. A rise in the use of the death penalty in Windsor prompted the need for the cemetery. The last executions in Vermont were back in 1954.
"They had to have a place for the bodies and to consolidate them, so that is how the cemetery first came to being," Bovat explained.
Many of the people buried there were inmates who were electrocuted or hanged. One died by a firing squad.
"It takes you back into prison history that's a little different from where we are now. A lot different," Pallito said.
Just one woman, Meddie Mann, is buried here. Mann was pregnant when she and her boyfriend killed her husband. The murderous duo hanged on the same day in January 1923.
"We didn't even think there was a woman in here until we started doing the history on it and started cleaning it up," Bovat said.
Up until 2008, the prison cemetery looked more, well, like a prison. Until Corrections decided to clean it up to make it look more like the Ascutney Street Cemetery which surrounds it.
"There was still a fence around it at the time," Bovat said. "It looked like just what it was-- an inmate cemetery. There's no need for that. These people have paid their time. They were sentenced to the state. We wanted to take that away... It was cruel looking in my opinion."
Work crew inmates from the state prison in Windsor mark the graves and they maintain the grounds.
"What you have here is new markers built by inmates, for inmates," Bovat noted.
Just four people have been buried here in the last decade. The most recent, Keith Roland, died in jail in 2008, convicted of attempted murder. He was sentenced to up to 80 years in prison after shooting two women execution style at a massage studio on Church Street in Burlington in 1990.
"It doesn't really feel like a prison cemetery," Pallito said. "I don't even think you'd necessarily know what it was, unless you were told, oh by the way, that's who is buried in the back there."
Corrections says there's enough room at the cemetery for 75 more inmates who die in state custody.
Ellie Jimmo's son, RJ, will not be one of them.
"His heart was so big," Jimmo said.
She managed to find a way to claim her son's body. He'll be buried in a family plot.
"He'll be in Addison County," she said.
Jimmo says her son always loved Addison County. Vergennes was home when he was a kid, before he got mixed up with drugs and crime.
There are two other state prison cemeteries in Vermont. One at the former State Hospital in Waterbury, the other in Rutland. And work to improve both of those is underway, as well.
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