Vt. Corrections replaces health care provider in wake of inmate death

Published: Jul. 13, 2020 at 11:59 AM EDT
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A Black man behind bars in Vermont told medical staffers he couldn't breathe. He later died. Now, his death has led the state to change who provides health care in its prisons. Our Cat Viglienzoni has details.

Kenneth Johnson, 60, of Lyndon, died in December at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport.

Monday, the state's top corrections official said the prison health care system failed Johnson.

Corrections Commissioner James Baker says the state has determined Johnson died of an undiagnosed tumor in his airway. Baker says Johnson had complained of breathing issues for months prior and was even taken to a hospital at one point. But the tumor wasn't caught.

Baker says no one should die in corrections custody the way Johnson did.

"For someone to lose their life because of a tumor that blocked their airway is not acceptable," Baker said. "We have a population that has serious medical challenges. But we shouldn't write off when someone has a medical complaint, such as I can't breathe as if that is not real."

As of July 1, VitalCore is now caring for the state's inmates at the cost of $20 million a year for three years. Baker says that was the cheapest bid and that the new provider holds the same values they do.

As far as Johnson's death, no one has been disciplined and no lawsuits have been filed against the state yet. Other investigations into his death are ongoing.

The human services secretary has authorized Baker to bring in a private legal firm to assess where internal corrections systems could be improved.


Baker Monday said a newly-created Office of Professional Standards will seek to address issues of equity, fairness, impartiality in hiring, supervision, and treatment inside the state's correctional facilities.

That includes things like hiring a more diverse staff and making sure people are treated equally in the corrections system.

Baker said the new office is a big step forward for them. "Anybody that's in the criminal justice system -- no matter where you sit now -- if you're not taking a serious look at the way you're operating from the lens of equity, you're making a big mistake," Baker said.

They'll be getting help from advisors, including Tabitha Moore, the head of the Rutland NAACP, and Curtis Reed, the executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity.

They'll model some of their work on the Vermont State Police's Fair and Impartial Policing committee.