Vermont State Police investigate death at St. Albans state prison
Vermont State Police are investigating the death of a 37-year old man held at Northwest State Correctional Facility.
According to a press release from state police, Shawn Gardner, of Newport, Vermont, became “unresponsive” in the shower area of the prison around 6:35 p.m. on Wednesday. Corrections staff provided emergency medical care and called first responders. Life-saving measures were unsuccessful, and Gardner was pronounced dead at the prison at 7:22 p.m., police said.
Gardner, a federal detainee, was arrested on Tuesday for violating conditions of his supervised release, court records say. He’d been on three years of supervised release since 2020 following time in prison after pleading guilty to a 2016 charge of conspiracy to distribute heroin.
Gardner was initially lodged at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport on Tuesday, and then transferred to Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans on Wednesday ahead of a court appearance. According to the Department of Corrections, he experienced a “medical event” shortly after returning from court.
DOC Commissioner Nick Deml declined to share more details about the incident but said they’re reviewing if substance use issues were a factor.
“That part of the investigation is now underway and I don't want to get too far in front of us there,” Deml said in a phone interview on Thursday. “But that is something that we're reviewing.”
Gardner recently has been struggling with his substance use, according to court records. He admitted to his probation officer this month that he’d use heroin and cocaine, and he failed to attend a residential substance use treatment program at Valley Visa, court records say.
In a motion from February, Gardner’s attorney Lisa Shelkrot wrote that his recent struggle with drugs began in 2022 after two close family members died. Prior to that, he’d abstained from illicit drugs and alcohol, started a cleaning business with his wife and volunteered with the local fire department, court records say.
A preliminary investigation indicates Gardner’s death is not suspicious, but police say the “circumstances” are still under investigation. An autopsy, including a toxicology test, will be performed at the chief medical examiners’ office in Burlington to determine a cause and manner of death.
The Defender General’s office, and the Department of Corrections will conduct separate reviews of the incident, a standard protocol when someone dies in prison.
There’s been an uptick in prison deaths in recent years. Nine incarcerated people have died so far this year in Vermont – the same number of fatalities reported in all of last year.
Between 2017 and 2021, DOC reported 15 deaths total at state prisons. Most of the deaths in 2022 were from natural causes, according to death certificates. That trend appears to be holding this year, with most of the people in 2023 dying from natural causes. There’s been one suicide, and one person died after his cellmate allegedly beat him — though a cause and manner of death in the case is still pending.
But recent news reports have raised questions about whether incarcerated people received proper medical care. VTDigger reported in April that DOC staff allegedly ignored David Mitchell’s requests for medical attention. Mitchell died in April at Southern State Correctional Facility from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to his death certificate. The department has denied any misconduct in Mitchell’s death.
This week, VTDigger also reported allegations that a man held at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield recently received inadequate care after suffering a stroke. A DOC spokesperson told VTDigger the department would investigate those allegations.
In June, DOC announced it had retained Downs Rachlin Martin, a Burlington-based law firm, to develop a process for making public investigations into critical incidents, like prison deaths. The department generally does not release its findings after conducting death investigations.
Downs Rachlin Martin will also review ongoing death investigation and make recommendations for areas of improvement, DOC said in a press release.
This is the third time in recent years that Downs Rachlin Martin has been hired by DOC. The firm conducted an investigation into the 2019 death of Kenneth Johnson, a 60-year-old Black man who died after an undiagnosed tumor blocked his airway and medical personnel ignored his pleas for help. In another investigation, Downs Rachlin Martin substantiated multiple allegations of sexual misconduct at the state’s only women’s prison.
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