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Commissioner: Death Of Vermont Inmate A Result Of Systemic Failures

A man in a suit jacket in a screenshot.
Elodie Reed
/
VPR
Interim Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker spoke to reporters over Zoom Monday and called a inmate's death in December the result of systemic failures both inside and outside of Vermont's prisons.

Interim Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker held a press conference this week to announce a new contractor has taken over medical services for the Vermont Department of Corrections, and other changes following the death of an inmate this past December.

The inmate, Kenneth Johnson, was a 60-year-old Black man who repeatedly told staff and medical workers that he couldn't breathe but was denied medical care. He ultimately died from an undiagnosed tumor that obstructed his airway.

Johnson had not yet been convicted of any crime. He was charged with human trafficking and sexual assault.

"No one should die in our custody the way that Mr. Johnson passed away." — Jim Baker, Interim Corrections Commissioner

Baker was not in charge of the DOC at the time of Johnson’s death, but has since taken over the department. He spoke with reporters Monday and blamed systemic failures both inside DOC and out for failing to diagnose and prevent Kenneth Johnson's death.

“The failure for our medical providers and the health care providers outside the facility, not to have diagnosed Mr. Johnson's situation, cost him his life — on our watch — inside corrections,” Baker said. “No one should die in our custody the way that Mr. Johnson passed away.”

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Disability Rights Vermont and the Prisoner’s Right Office have investigated Johnson’s death. The organizations told VPR they found a lack of oversight by the state of Vermont led to Johnson's death.

Disability Rights Vermont has already provided its report to the DOC, though it has not been made public. Ed Paquin, the Executive Director of DRVT, said the report concludes Johnson suffered from abuse and neglect while behind bars.

"There needs to be leadership within the department that has the expertise to be able to monitor their contracts in a way that protects the health of all of the prisoners." — Ed Paquin, Disability Rights Vermont Director

Both organizations noted they’d like to see a doctor oversee the state’s contract for prison medical services; for the past five years, it’s been a registered nurse in that position.

“I think the department really has to have intimate knowledge of what is going on day to day with their contractors,” Paquin said. “And I think that's been lacking in the past. There needs to be leadership within the department that has the expertise to be able to monitor their contracts in a way that protects the health of all of the prisoners.”

More from Brave Little State: How Are Vermont Prisons Handling COVID-19?

On Monday, Commissioner Baker announced a new relationship between the DOC and the Department of Health Access, which traditionally focuses on medical insurance. Baker said that the doctor there, Dr. Scott Strenio, will now play a role overseeing the prisons' medical services contract. 

Baker also announced Monday the Kansas company VitalCore Health Strategies had replaced Centurion, which has provided health care to inmates in Vermont for the past five years.

VitalCore, which began operating in Vermont prisons on July 1, was the lowest of three bidders, receiving a contract worth $20 million a year. It does not appear the new contract was a result of Johnson's death.

"We're making sure in the industry, that we are breaking down the walls. That we would provide care internally just as you would get it externally." — Viola Riggin, VitalCore

Still, Viola Riggin, the company's chief executive, said her company is different from other prison medical providers.

“We're making sure in the industry, that we are breaking down the walls,” Riggin said. “That we would provide care internally just as you would get it externally.”

During his Zoom call with reporters, Baker made note, too, of the renaming and revamping of an Office of Professional Standards, which will be run by DOC human resources staffer Heather Simons. One major goal of this office, he said, will be to increase staff diversity in Vermont’s prisons.

Update 1:04 p.m. 7/27/20 Centurion, DOC's medical contractor through June of this year, has provided the following statement by email, via the communications firm, Marathon Strategies. "We stand by our record of service in Vermont and the quality of care that we have provided to thousands of incarcerated individuals in the state....  Earlier this year we participated in the competitive RFP process for these services, and we understand that the state’s selection of a new provider – which preceded the incident in question — was in large part due to a lower priced bid.  We are pleased that the new provider has chosen to hire many of our former leadership and team who can continue to serve the state." 

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet reporter Emily Corwin @emilycorwin.

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Emily Corwin reported investigative stories for VPR until August 2020. In 2019, Emily was part of a two-newsroom team which revealed that patterns of inadequate care at Vermont's eldercare facilities had led to indignities, injuries, and deaths. The consequent series, "Worse for Care," won a national Edward R. Murrow award for investigative reporting, and placed second for a 2019 IRE Award. Her work editing VPR's podcast JOLTED, about an averted school shooting, and reporting NHPR's podcast Supervision, about one man's transition home from prison, made her a finalist for a Livingston Award in 2019 and 2020. Emily also reports and produces every other episode of Brave Little State. When she's not working, she enjoys cross country skiing and biking.
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