Editorial: Inmate’s Death Should Stir Consciences in Vermont

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

It’s admirable that Vermont state government has declined to enlist in President Trump’s war on undocumented immigrants, but we wish that the governor and the Legislature would show a corresponding level of concern for the hundreds of Vermonters who are exiled in out-of-state prisons.

Currently, more than 200 Vermont inmates are warehoused at the Pennsylvania state prison at Camp Hill. One of them, Roger Brown, died last month at age 68 of metastatic lung cancer under circumstances that Barry Kade, a Vermont lawyer and prisoner rights advocate, has described as tantamount to torture.

Reporting by Vermont Public Radio and VtDigger strongly suggests that Kade is not engaging in hyperbole but accurately characterizing what went on. A diary kept by Brown and, when he became too debilitated to write, by his cellmate, chronicled his repeated, unsuccessful efforts to get medical treatment, specifically relief for excruciating pain. Camp Hill’s response was to provide ibuprofen and Tylenol.

Perhaps typical of the diary excerpts that have been published is this entry for Oct. 2, written by cellmate Clifton Matthews: “I had the sergeant declare a medical emergency because Roger was in so much pain. I wheeled him up to medical. We were refused! The short nurse on duty told Roger ‘chronic pain is not a medical emergency. ... It was all in his head.’ ”

This is a horror to anyone who has watched a loved one die of lung or bone cancer, the pain from which is so severe that it is normally treated with powerful opioids at the end of life. But even absent personal experience, this report ought to rouse the sleeping conscience of lawmakers and the Scott administration and lead to a full-scale review not only of this appalling incident but also of the whole policy of incarcerating some prisoners out of state.

Vermont has for 20 years shipped inmates, usually felons serving long sentences, to other states because there is no room for them in Vermont facilities. In June, 270 Vermont inmates who had been serving their time at a private prison in Michigan were transferred by the Department of Corrections to Pennsylvania under an agreement that had the blessing of Gov. Phil Scott and the Legislature — and, by inference, that of the thousands of Vermonters who are their constituents.

As our colleague Jim Kenyon presciently noted in a column the following month, red flags were everywhere. While it costs about $60,000 a year to house a male offender in Vermont, Pennsylvania is charging the state $26,280 per inmate annually. Inmates’ access to phones was severely restricted at that point, a situation that was supposed to be temporary but which may persist given the difficulty some members of the Vermont defense bar report in communicating with their clients.

Most telling perhaps was that the Vermont-Pennsylvania contract differed in a significant respect from previous ones. As Kenyon reported, it is what’s called an Interstate Corrections Compact, which was described to him as giving Pennsylvania the power to treat Vermont inmates as their own.

Amy Worden, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, has rebuffed specific inquiries about the Brown case, but told VtDigger that, “We deliver health care services in line with community standards.” Whose community and whose standards were not specified, but Vermont Defender General Matt Valerio stated the obvious when he said that the care Brown received — if it even can be called that — was inconsistent “with what we expect in Vermont.”

Roger Brown was serving a six- to 15-year sentence on three counts of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child, so he was hardly a sympathetic figure. But he was sentenced to prison, not to physical agony in his dying days. If torture it was, then Vermont is complicit.