Southern State Correctional Facility.
Photoillustration based on image by Phoebe Sheehan/VTDigger file photo
Southern State Correctional Facility.

The state is killing people in prison

The deprivation, neglect, and violence that characterize Vermont’s prisons is causing premature deaths of inmates at an alarming rate

BRATTLEBORO — On the morning of April 17, David Mitchell, a 46-year-old man from Rutland, complained to prison guards that he couldn't breathe and needed urgent medical treatment.

According to multiple accounts from other people incarcerated in the same block at Southern State Correctional Facility, the guard told Mitchell to stop complaining and go back to his cell. When Mitchell kept begging to be taken to the hospital, he was threatened with being sent “to the hole” - solitary confinement - if he didn't stop.

Within an hour, he died in his cell.

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We are not even four months into 2023, and David Mitchell is already the eighth person to die in Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC) custody this year. If the DOC had its way, all we would have known was that Mitchell was “found unresponsive in his cell” and that “life-saving efforts were unsuccessful.”

The state police reported on Tuesday that Mitchell had “told staff Monday morning that he was feeling unwell and had difficulty breathing.”

We know more of the story only because of two courageous inmates who have risked their own well-being to share the truth, despite DOC temporarily shutting down communication between Springfield's incarcerated population and the outside world. DOC has already retaliated against the first witness, John White, by transferring him from Springfield to St. Albans.

Mitchell's death bears a disturbing resemblance to Kenneth Johnson's passing four years earlier. Johnson was detained for two years at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport and in the fall of 2019 began to complain of severe chest pain and difficulty breathing. He was given steroids which did not solve the problem and, instead, aggravated his diabetes.

On the night of Dec. 6, Mitchell complained of extreme difficulty breathing. Instead of receiving care or being rushed to the hospital, Johnson received a threat. He was warned to stop faking it, or else he would be moved to solitary.

He passed away before the sun rose the next morning.

* * *

A subsequent investigation by the Defender General's office would reveal that DOC not only failed to treat Johnson humanely in the moments when his life still could have been saved, but also that the situation could have been avoided if he had received better care and an accurate diagnosis in the months leading up to his death.

Perhaps even worse than these errors, the report showed that DOC personnel then lied to hide their guilt, both immediately by logging false information in their reports.

They said that Johnson died at the off-site hospital rather than at the prison infirmary and that he was still alive well after video footage shows he had already died. In the longer term, the DOC failed to adequately provide the administrative review that is required after someone dies in the state agency's custody.

This policy itself was put into place in 2006 as part of a series of reforms in response to a string of deaths of inmates in DOC custody.

Most notorious among these deaths was Jim Quigley, who killed himself in his cell after being in solitary for almost four months as punishment for filing grievances against DOC mistreatment.

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The state of Vermont is killing people.

I don't mean this in the sense that being incarcerated leads to people dying younger - although this connection has been shown to be true time and again, with some estimates suggesting that people lose as much as two years from their life expectancy for every year they are locked up.

Or in the sense that prisons and policing enforce and maintain an incredibly unjust social order that causes too many people in our communities to die too soon because they lack health care or safe housing, and they face battles with addiction and despair that they are not able to win.

No, I mean this much more directly.

I say that the state of Vermont is killing people because the deprivation, neglect, and violence that characterize Vermont's prisons is causing premature death at an alarming rate. We may not have the death penalty, but the state forces people to endure conditions that are not conducive to life. Yet our government also denies culpability when people in those inhumane conditions die.

The state of Vermont is killing people. To say anything less is to obscure the truth.

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The poor standard of health care within prisons is a major cause of these killings. The most recent Prison Research and Innovation Network (PRIN) study of people locked up in Springfield showed that 83% say they don't get medical care when they need it and 90% say they received better medical care outside of prison.

Not only do people not get the care they need while they're in prison, but many actually develop new ailments during incarceration.

Since entering prison, over two-thirds of respondents reported developing anxiety or depression; over half reported developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), over a third reported becoming overweight or obese, and over a quarter reported developing high blood pressure.

Being in prison doesn't just keep you from getting better. It actively makes you sicker.

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The DOC recently announced that it has signed a three-year contract with Wellpath LLC to provide medical services in Vermont's prisons starting this summer.

This is deeply concerning, as Wellpath has a history of corrupt practices and substandard care. In many ways, it is just likely to be more of the same, as the company - in the revolving door of for-profit prison medical-care contractors - will replace VitalCore Health Strategies, which replaced Centurion, which replaced Wellpath back in 2015, when it operated under the name Correct Care Solutions.

It is important to be attentive to these companies' practices because, with control over medical care in Vermont's prisons, they can be the difference between life and death for those on the inside.

But I also want to keep this in the context of how prisons function.

Incarceration is fundamentally driven by deprivation, lack of autonomy, and abusive hierarchies that are based on the imminent threat of violence. You could put the very best doctors in prison infirmaries, and access to care would still be restricted by controlling correctional officers and threatened by a lack of autonomy that incarcerated people have over their own bodies.

If we want fewer Vermonters to die in prison, we absolutely need to scrutinize the actions of the for-profit health care companies and their DOC collaborators and demand better care for those inside.

But we also simply need fewer people locked up in inhumane environments, and we need responses to harm that do not multiply harm on an institutional scale. Similarly, we need mental and physical health care across the state that allows people to live well and meet their needs in their own communities - leading to less harm happening in the first place.

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No case shows this better than Jeffrey Hall and Mbyayenge Mafuta.

Hall had been detained at St. Albans since mid-November of last year on charges of petit larceny, driving a motor vehicle without the owner's consent, and providing false information to police.

Mafuta had been detained there since August, when he was arrested after allegedly vandalizing a few dozen homes. He had a history of dealing with mental health issues and many run-ins with the Burlington police, including a previous incident where Mafuta had turned himself in to police, said he was off his meds, and asked to be locked up.

On Dec. 19, 2022, he complained to guards that he was hearing voices and having thoughts of harming himself or others. This left him in the hole overnight - St. Albans's only tangible response for someone experiencing this type of crisis.

The next day, a health screener employed by VitalCore cleared him to return to the general population. Two days later, on Dec. 22, Mafuta is alleged to have beaten Hall, who was rushed to the hospital with life-threatening injuries. Hall never recovered and passed away in March.

Mafuta has been charged with attempted murder, which may be upgraded depending on the results of Hall's autopsy. But if we simply place the blame on this one young man who was experiencing a severe mental health crisis, we fail to understand what more fundamentally caused this moment of violence.

Vermont's prisons are killing people, and they killed Jeffrey Hall. His death is a result of a society that did not have the resources or the compassion to give Mafuta the care he needed.

It is the result of a society whose catch-all response to people in crisis or who act differently is to lock them up.

It is the result of locking them up in a place that is fueled by depriving people of freedom and resources and embedding whatever shreds of care that do exist so deep within hierarchies and power inequities that they are practically nonexistent.

It is the result of a society that is content to disappear social problems behind bars.

After they were exposed for covering up the killing of Kenneth Johnson, Vermont DOC promised a culture shift so that events like this wouldn't happen again. But they are happening, now at an unprecedented rate.

This goes deeper than any culture shift. We need power to shift. We need structures to shift. We need the state to stop killing people.

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