Racial bias examined as part of inmate death probe

State admits no internal investigation was launched
Published: Jul. 24, 2020 at 2:55 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 24, 2020 at 7:54 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The probe into the death of a Vermont prison inmate will include questions as to why there was no internal corrections department investigation immediately after his death.

Kenneth Johnson, 60, of Lyndon, died in December at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport. The state announced earlier this month that Johnson died from an undiagnosed throat tumor that blocked his airway.

Vt. Human Services Secretary Mike Smith acknowledged on Friday that the corrections department failed to investigate the case after Johnson’s death. Smith said that should have happened and is part of an external investigation now being conducted by former U.S. Attorney Tris Coffin of the law firm Downs, Rachlin and Martin.

Smith says the state has learned enough already to know that numerous mistakes were made. “Did we do everything we could have in this case? And we need to look ourselves in the mirror and make that judgment whether we did. I don’t think we did.”

A separate investigation by the Vt. Defender General alleges racial bias was a factor in Johnson’s death. Smith says that is being looked at. “And since this prisoner was African-American, then we even have to ask the hard question and look ourselves in the mirror and say, would we have handled this prisoner differently If he was white?”

Earlier this month, the state announced it had dumped the health care contractor that was responsible for Johnson’s care. But so far, no disciplinary action has been taken against the contractor or corrections personnel, pending the outcome of the state investigation. Smith alluded to the possibility of legal action in the case, saying all investigation results will be turned over to state and federal prosecutors.

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