Vt. defender general report outlines alleged racial bias behind inmate death

Published: Jul. 22, 2020 at 6:06 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 23, 2020 at 1:28 PM EDT
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SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - A new report out from Vermont’s defender general says a Black man’s death behind bars was the result of failures by both the prison’s former medical provider and corrections officials.

“I’m very concerned that there is a culture of dismissiveness when it comes to complaints of inmates relative to medical care,” said Vt. Defender General Matt Valerio.

He says in his nearly 20 years on the job, this is a repeat concern. He say corrections officials failed to address the medical needs of Kenneth Johnson, who was being held at the prison in Newport. Johnson has been behind bars since he was accused of trafficking a teenage girl back in 2017. He died on December 7 from a tumor that had blocked his airway. Valerio says, their investigation found Johnson had complained earlier in the fall of having trouble breathing, among other symptoms. Prison medical staff suspected COPD, a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs, and they prescribed him steroids. But Johnson never saw a throat specialist, even as symptoms worsened.

"They should be going to that next step and saying, 'Look, maybe we should get this guy to the ER,' which is what should have happened," Valerio said. But it didn't. He says his office's report found prison staff didn't respond urgently to his symptoms the night he died, even threatening him with confinement if he didn't "knock it off." Valerio says he thinks both racial bias and a culture of dismissiveness contributed to Johnson's death. "To me, there's something in the culture of how we address peoples' medical needs in jail that needs to change."

Valerio’s report has recommendations that could affect care at all prisons statewide. They Include mandating that corrections hire an in-house doctor to supervise medical care at all the prisons. That job used to exist but hasn’t been around since 2015. He also wants an independent panel to review prison medical care statewide, and further investigations into misconduct and racial bias.

"Teasing out implicit bias isn't as easy as making the judgment that it's bias, but that's a very fair question," said Vt. Corrections Commissioner James Baker. He says his department is already taking action. They changed health care providers and hired a private law firm to investigate prison staff conduct in the Johnson case. He says they have also already created an office of professional standards to look into equity issues. Baker said he's looking at corrections culture as a whole, including whether inmates' complaints are taken seriously.

"If someone tells you they can't breathe, then you have to take them at face value and get them the medical care they need. And as the commissioner, there's no excuses here," Baker said. "No one should die in our custody the way Mr. Johnson died."

Both men agree that it’s an opportunity for change. Baker says they’ll be meeting to go over how to make it happen.

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