In December 2019, a man named Kenneth Johnson in the infirmary at the Northern State Correctional Facility was gasping for breath and begging staff to bring him to a hospital. Another man in the infirmary with him reported that he banged on the window for help, but was told by a corrections officer to knock it off or he’d take him to the hole — solitary confinement. Mr Johnson died before the sun rose the next morning.

The Defender General’s office investigated the death, and in a July 2022 report, blamed the Department of Corrections and their corporate health care provider, Centurion Managed Care, for gross negligence that resulted in the man’s death. The state’s medical examiner stated the the care was so poor, it might rise to the level of criminal neglect.

Mr Johnson was a Black man, and the Defender General suggested that racism might have played a role in the neglect. “You can never know what’s in another man’s heart or mind when they’re making decisions, but this clearly calls into question whether or not there was a racial component to the lack of treatment that Mr. Johnson received,” Valerio said.

In April 2023, a man named David Mitchell in his unit at Southern State Correctional Facility was gasping for breath and begging staff to take him to the hospital. Mr Mitchell had a medical history that included respiratory difficulties. He was seen by the nursing staff that morning for what seems to be routine health checks and was told he was fine. Still he begged for help, and a corrections officer threatened to send him to the hole if he didn’t stop. An hour later he was dead.

Mr Mitchell was not Black, but except for the possible racist element, the cases are quite similar. The corporate health care provider this time was Vital Core. This case is still under investigation by the Defender General’s office, we should see a report in a few months. But on the face of it, these two deaths demonstrate a pattern that hasn’t changed over several years, despite the changing health care providers.

In addition to these deaths, many more incarcerated people have died this year, and even more people have had health issues that were ignored and are still being ignored. People submit sick slip after sick slip to no avail, conditions worsen, and the stress and anxiety grows. People watch the indifference directed toward the sickest of them, and they fear for their own health.

What can account for this lack of concern and compassion on the part of nursing and corrections staff? There are many possible explanations. One is the nature of corporate healthcare itself. As Defender General Matthew Valerio explained on a recent discussion on Vermont Edition, the corporations sign a contract for a fixed sum. The most recent, with Wellpath LLC, which is owned by the private equity firm H.I.G, is for $33 million. “The less they spend, the more money they make,” said Valerio.

So in this model, the medical staff is expected to keep treatment to a minimum. The money the taxpayers of Vermont spend for care for this vulnerable population that has little to no control on so many aspects of their lives, including their health, is to be apportioned so that as much of our $33 million as possible goes to the stockholders of Wellpath, LLC.

When becoming a restorative justice volunteer, you are required to take a training from DOC. The strongest and overarching message of this training was: Don’t trust offenders. They are going to try to manipulate you. Stay skeptical. I expect this message is loud and clear in the training of corrections staff as well, and it is reinforced every working day. With Corrections being short staffed, and officers are working double shifts, compassion is in short supply in our prisons.

So between saving money for the shareholders of Wellpath and the insistence on approaching incarcerated people with distrust, it’s no wonder that deaths like these occur, as well as chronic illnesses that go untreated, and people being released from prison with broken bones and untreated cancer. The question is, are we as a state willing to accept this as status quo, or demand better?

Meg McCarthy

Report on death of Black inmate who pleaded for help rips corrections, health care provider — VT Digger

2nd incarcerated witness details death of David Mitchell at Springfield prison — VT Digger

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