Jim Kenyon: Shadow of mistreatment lingers over Woodside abuse settlement

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 3/21/2023 8:42:00 PM
Modified: 3/21/2023 8:41:57 PM

Last month, the state of Vermont finalized a $4.5 million out-of-court settlement with youths who alleged they were victims of “obscene abuse” while locked up at the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex.

The money — after lawyers get their cut — is going to six kids who were detained between 2016 and 2020 at Vermont’s de facto youth prison for juveniles judged “delinquent.” The estate of a girl who had been at Woodside but since died of an accidental drug overdose, is also receiving a share.

Woodside was a house of horrors, where kids who often struggled with mental illness were subjected to excessive force, cruel and unusual punishment and more.

The multimillion-dollar payout, in which the state shamelessly didn’t acknowledge any wrongdoing, was well-deserved. But I’m aware of at least one other victim of Woodside’s inexcusable mistreatment who is just as deserving. And he’s not getting a dime.

In 2011, Sam Ramsey was 16 when the state put him behind Woodside’s locked doors and 12-foot-high perimeter fence, topped with spools of razor ribbon.

Almost immediately, Woodside took Ramsey off most of his medications for his mental illness, his mother, Kerrie, said. Within a few months, he got into an altercation with a female counselor — a former prison guard.

The Woodside staff made sure that Ramsey suffered for taking on one of its own. He spent seven months in a locked room with a bed, toilet, sink and small window. He kept track of time by listening for the trains rumbling along the tracks outside Woodside’s fence.

He was allowed out for one hour a day to shower and call his mother. She was allowed to visit him once a week under the watchful eye of one or two Woodside employees.

Occasionally, he was let out of solitary confinement to play basketball — alone. “I hated not being allowed to talk with other kids,” he later told me.

I first met Ramsey when he was 5, living with his mother and two older brothers at a Hartford campground. The Ramseys were part of my 2001 Other Side of the Valley series, which told the stories of four families with working parents who struggled to find affordable housing. (More than 20 years later, the Upper Valley hasn’t changed.)

The Ramseys later found housing in Windsor, where Kerrie still lives with her longtime partner, a retired mail carrier. In elementary school, Sam began having outbursts that went far beyond adolescent temper tantrums. He was diagnosed with several mental health conditions that could have been the root of his destructive behavior.

Kerrie, a respiratory therapist, made sure her son received mental health counseling. Still, his condition worsened. He spent most of his early teens in residential treatment centers for troubled youths with psychiatric illnesses.

At 16, the state shipped him to Woodside, operated by the Vermont Department for Children and Families, better known as DCF. After his seven months in isolation, Ramsey was transferred by DCF to a private residential facility for emotionally disturbed teenagers in Georgia.

At 18, Ramsey was brought back to Vermont to begin serving a three-year prison sentence that he received after pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault charges, stemming from the Woodside altercation two years earlier. He was among the youngest inmates at the adult prison in Newport, Vt., where his mother visited him on Sunday mornings.

In 2015 interviews at the prison with Ramsey and his mother, I learned the details of his experiences at Woodside. Former Woodside employees, who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation from the state, confirmed Ramsey’s accounts. During a couple of visits to Woodside, I asked Jay Simons, its chief administrator, about the facility’s use of solitary confinement.

“We don’t do that,” Simons said. “It’s not part of our program.”

In the recently settled lawsuit, lawyers for the seven youths claimed some children were “confined to isolation cells in Woodside’s so-called ‘North Unit’ for days, weeks, and sometimes months at a time.”

Simons now works for DCF in Newport, Vt. He didn’t respond to my email request for comment. I did hear from a DCF spokesperson, who said the state agency doesn’t comment on “case-specific matters due to confidentiality.”

I also emailed Brooks McArthur, an attorney with Gravel & Shea, the Burlington law firm that secured the $4.5 million settlement. The firm didn’t know about Ramsey, he responded. I don’t know if it would have made a difference. Typically, there’s a statute of limitations on filing civil claims.

In 2019, the Vermont Legislature removed the time limit for actions based on childhood sexual or physical abuse. On Tuesday, the Vermont Supreme Court during a stop at Vermont Law and Graduate School heard a case in which the legislative change regarding sexual abuse cases is being challenged.

Depending how the Supreme Court rules, Ramsey might still have a case. I’m not a lawyer, but I think he could make a strong argument that he suffered physical and mental abuse at Woodside.

Last week, I talked with Ramsey, who has been out of prison for six years. He’s moved to a small town in Pennsylvania, 70 miles north of Harrisburg, the state capitol. He has a girlfriend and rides a motorcycle.

He works the overnight shift at a manufacturing plant that builds trailers for large trucks. He earns $18.50 hour, working the “line,” as Ramsey calls it.

“I mostly work and sleep,” he said.

Sleep doesn’t always come easy, which Ramsey attributes to his solitary confinement at Woodside.

Sleeping behind a “closed, locked door would freak me out,” he said. “I still have to have a light on when I sleep.”

After leaving prison in 2017, Ramsey enrolled at Community College of Vermont while working 50-hour weeks at a fast-food restaurant. He couldn’t juggle both.

At 28, Ramsey still holds college aspirations, hoping a degree could lead to a medical technology career.

If there was a way to pursue a lawsuit and potential settlement against the state for what happened to him at Woodside, he knows what he’d do. “I’d go back to school full time,” he said.

It wasn’t until 2020 that Gov. Phil Scott’s administration closed Vermont’s youth prison. Five years earlier, Ramsey had bravely told his story of mental and physical abuse at Woodside. No one in Montpelier listened.

Or they just didn’t want to know.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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