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Vt. police are investigating 6th death at Springfield prison this year

A photo of the cement exterior of a building with barbed wire running along the top
Vermont Department of Corrections File
Eight incarcerated people have died in Vermont so far this year.

Vermont State Police are investigating the death of a 46-year-old man who was held at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield. David Mitchell reportedly told prison staff on Monday morning that he was feeling unwell and was having trouble breathing, state police said in a press release.

A medical unit provided treatment to Mitchell after he reported feeling unwell according to Nick Deml, commissioner of the Department of Corrections.

“He was seemingly, you know, stable and in good shape at that point,” Deml said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “And then a short time later, he was found deceased by a corrections officer doing their unit tours.”

Mitchell was found unresponsive in his cell at 9:27 a.m. on Monday, according to state police. Staff provided emergency medical care and called first responders. Mitchell was pronounced dead at 10:10 a.m., police say.

Mitchell was being held on a probation violation related to a larceny charge and also being held on a pending misdemeanor retail theft charge, according to state police.

An autopsy will be conducted by the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Burlington to determine a cause and manner of death.

DOC and the Defender General’s Prisoner’s Rights office will conduct separate reviews of the incident – a standard procedure when someone dies in prison. An attorney at the Prisoner’s Rights office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Mitchell is the eighth incarcerated person to die in Vermont this year, and the sixth person to die at Southern State Correctional Facility. The Springfield prison tends to house the state’s older incarcerated population and those with higher medical needs.

More from Vermont Public: Vermont State Police investigating another death at Southern State Correctional Facility

There’s been an uptick in prison deaths in Vermont in the last year. In 2022, nine people died in state prisons. That's compared to the span between 2017 and 2021 when the DOC reported 15 deaths total at state prisons.

According to death certificates, most of the people in 2022 died from natural causes. Two of the fatalities were suicides, and one person died from a drug overdose. So far in 2023, there’s been one suicide, two deaths determined to be natural, and the remaining cases are still being reviewed.

Deml said that the overall health of the state’s incarcerated population has gotten worse in recent years: 90% of the population is on some kind of medication, 70% are on psychotropic medications, and half of the prison population is getting medical treatment for opioid use disorder, Deml said.

“Today we have just over 1,300 individuals incarcerated in Vermont — of those, 1,000 of them have chronic illness,” Deml said. “When you step back and digest those facts, you start to see that the system, the folks in the system in Vermont – and this is true nationally as well – are very sick and getting increasingly sicker.”

DOC had an 18% increase in sick calls last year, which includes medical, dental, opioid use treatment, and mental health issues, as well as a 27% increase in the number of times that incarcerated individuals saw medical providers, according to data from the department.

More from Vermont Public: Vt. prisons will have a new medical contractor July 1. The company is accused of providing inadequate care

DOC announced earlier this month that Wellpath LLC, the country’s largest prison health care provider, will take over medical services in the state's prisons on July 1. Wellpath provides health services in prisons, civil commitment centers and residential treatment facilities across 36 states. The company has also faced numerous allegations of providing inadequate health care, including instances in other New England states.

DOC also announced last week that Mike Lyon, the superintendent of Southern State Correctional Facility, was on paid administrative leave pending an investigation into an allegation of misconduct.

The department did not share any details of the alleged misconduct, but said in a press release that it was not related to any deaths of people at the facility.

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Updated: April 19, 2023 at 1:49 PM EDT
This story has been updated with additional information from Department of Corrections Commissioner Nick Deml.
Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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