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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

The Slow And Painful Prison Death Of Roger Brown

Looking down a wing of closed doors at Camp Hill prison in Pennsylvania
Marc Levy
Associated Press file
Vermont inmate Roger Brown died in prison in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania where he and more than 200 other Vermont inmates are housed because of a lack of in-state prison space.

On October 15, Vermont inmate Roger Brown died of metastatic cancer at the prison infirmary in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. He wrote in his diary that prison medical staff provided him with ibuprofen, Tylenol and gel shoe inserts to manage his pain and never told him about the cancer that was causing it.

Here's a diary entry he wrote on Sept. 23:

“Saturday. Awake all night again. Back pain real bad. Breakfast, lunch, waiting for yard. Agony still. So much ibuprofen starting to scare me, not taking care of the pain. Supper.”

Brown was one of more than 200 Vermont inmates sent to state prison in Pennsylvania due to a shortage of beds in Vermont.

According to his diary, he spent weeks asking staff in Pennsylvania for medical care and receiving little more than over the counter drugs.

There's no evidence in the diary that Roger Brown knew he had cancer.

“Can't sleep at night. Hip on fire. Painful. I think it's broken,” he wrote on Sept. 25.

The diary was mailed to VPR, and Brown's widow confirmed that the handwriting in the diary belonged to her late husband.

“This is government-funded suffering, and death in some ways," says Anna Stevens, the outreach director for the advocacy group Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform. "You know, he did not get the medical treatment or care that he clearly, clearly needed.”

Corresponding with current and former inmates and their families, Stevens says she's heard similar stories.

“Seeking help, seeking support, be it medical, be it mental, be it about addiction, anything - is kind of a very slow very arduous, relatively unattentive process,” she says.

Roger Brown's prison diary mentions repeated trips to pick up medications that weren't in stock.
Roger Brown's prison diary mentions repeated trips to pick up medications that weren't in stock.

State corrections officials refused to comment on Roger Brown's specific case because they haven't yet completed a required review of his death.

Benjamin Watts is the health services director for Vermont's Department of Corrections.

He says there's a full review that puts together a timeline and all available facts of the case, “which is reviewed very closely, usually numerous times by me, the director of nursing, and the chief of mental health who work as part of the health services division to get a sense of what the root cause of the issue was, whether there were any policy and procedure violations, and what steps could be taken to improve health care services going forward.”

Roger Brown's diary entries, July-October 2017

Watts and other top Vermont corrections officials interviewed for this story said the department faces challenges delivering high-quality care to all of the state's inmates, but they denied allegations that there is an "empathy gap" between staff and inmates.

Commissioner Lisa Menard says providing health care for inmates incarcerated by the state of Vermont is a duty her department takes very seriously.

Because case specifics are protected by patient privacy laws, and because prisons are inherently insulated from public view, it's hard to tell how those health care services are measuring up.

Roger Brown was serving time for lewd and lascivious conduct with a child and was scheduled for release in April 2019.

In online comments, some Vermonters have expressed the opinion that inmates gave up their rights by committing crimes — and that prison health care standards should not be a major concern.

Tom Dalton, the executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, says that attitude undermines democracy itself.

“You know how we treat the least popular among us says a lot about how seriously we take our constitutional protections and our legal protections,” Dalton says. “When someone's convicted of a crime and they become incarcerated, they're paying the penalty for their crime. But the penalty is the incarceration, it's not added suffering due to medical neglect.”

By the end of September, Brown's condition was deteriorating.

Roger Brown's prison diary describes increasing pain for weeks ahead of his death on October 15, 2017.
Roger Brown's prison diary describes increasing pain for weeks ahead of his death on October 15, 2017.

“Couldn't sleep at all again last night,” he wrote. “After going to medical, my back has been in spasms ever since. Lunch, supper. Pill line again tonight. Still no pain medication.”

A few days later, Brown stopped writing in his diary because he was in too much pain.

His roommate Clifton Matthews took over.

“Roger continues to go downhill. I'm frantic. I can't get the staff to do anything,” he wrote sometime between Oct. 7 and 12.

Matthews tried for more than two weeks to get help for Brown.

This is the last entry, from Oct. 14.

“Roger continued to fail all day. He is down to bones and moans. I'm frantic. I get officer Bilous to look in on Roger. He agrees and we move him up to medical under another medical emergency. That is at 7 p.m. By 8 p.m. we get him admitted to the infirmary. This is the last time I saw Roger alive.

"We were continually rebuked and refused medical attention, told repeatedly it was all in his head, even at the point where he could no longer stand or sit up.”

The final entry in Roger Brown's prison diary was written by his cellmate, Clifton Matthews, who took over writing in the diary when Brown became too weak to write.
The final entry in Roger Brown's prison diary was written by his cellmate, Clifton Matthews, who took over writing in the diary when Brown became too weak to write.

On October 15, 2017, Roger Brown died in prison in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. His cause of death was listed as metastatic cancer. He was 68.

Camp Hill prison officials refused to be interviewed about Brown's case, but they released the following statement:

"Mr. Brown's Vermont DOC medical record was delivered to the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill along with the inmate on June 12, 2017. At the time of reception, this inmate received a complete medical evaluation and was provided any necessary treatment in accordance with DOC policy."

Pennsylvania is also conducting a review of Brown's death.

Two weeks after Brown died, a Vermont inmate who was recently transferred to an in-state prison from the Pennsylvania prison also died of cancer. His name was Tim Adams.

Vermont DOC officials are expected to conduct a review of his death too.

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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