A look at health care in Vermont’s prisons

Published: Apr. 28, 2023 at 11:48 PM EDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Vt. (WCAX) - Seven people have died while incarcerated at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield since the start of 2023. Three of the deaths were been attributed to natural causes, one has been deemed a suicide, and the other three are still under investigation. Now inmates and their loved ones are raising concerns about access to healthcare behind bars.

“We’re seeing a population that’s aging and rapidly getting sicker,” Department of Corrections Commissioner Nick Deml said. “We have 1,000 individuals of 1,300 total with chronic illness. That’s a 45% increase in the last five years.”

But inmates and their loved ones think there may be more to the issue.

Jack White says he was in a neighboring cell to David Mitchell the day he passed away. Mitchell was the seventh person to die while incarcerated at Southern State since the start of this year.

“He kept complaining, audibly, really desperately he couldn’t breathe,” White said. “It was disturbing. It was tragic. And despite being in prison he was a decent guy.”

Preston Lawson also lived in the same unit as Mitchell and says he witnessed something similar. “He was like I left the hospital with seven liters of oxygen, now I’m down to two,” Lawson said. “The man was crying begging for his life.”

Mitchell was seen by nurses throughout the day. Though, White and Lawson didn’t feel they took his complaints seriously. Several inmates we spoke with say Mitchell was also in the process of being taken off buprenorphine, often used to treat opioid addiction.

“He begged for his life for 20 minutes and all they did was threaten to put him in segregation,” Lawson continued. “They let him die. They know they let him die.”

“If anyone is in serious distress, it takes a long time, if it’s dealt with at all,” White continued.

Deml says they can’t release much information as the investigation into Mitchell’s death is ongoing, but that there was no apparent misconduct by corrections staff. There were cameras in the housing unit, however, none record audio.

“Mr. Mitchell did receive medical care multiple times the morning he passed away,” Deml said. “Our staff are trained in communications techniques and de-escalation tactics, so when individuals do get agitated, we do have tools.”

But the issue doesn’t seem to stop at Mitchell. Janet, whose partner was incarcerated at Southern but has since been transferred, says he’s also struggled receiving care in prison.

“If you have any kind of ailment, or anything, you put in a sick slip and they get back to you when they get back to you,” Janet said of her partners experience. As a result of delayed medical care, her partner has suffered from several serious infections, many being the result of MRSA. She’s part of Vermont Just Justice’s group planning a rally at the statehouse next week, with hopes lawmakers and other officials will take the issue more seriously.

Democratic Representative Kristi Morris of Springfield told Channel 3 on Sunday “I reached out to the Dept. Of Corrections last week regarding a medical inquiry on behalf of an inmate and the families concerns for his well being.”

“It puts a lot of pressure on everybody. The incarcerated individuals? They’re scared. They have no control. They have no one to take care of them,” Janet continued.

There’s also an ongoing investigation into alleged misconduct by Sothern’s Superintendent Mike Lyon, though correction officials say it is not related to the deaths.

We will keep you updated as those death investigations and the ongoing misconduct investigation against the superintendent wrap up. DOC officials say it could be a few months.