Former Springfield, Vt. prison superintendent wins suit against Dept. of Corrections

  • Mark Potanas in the solitary confinement unit at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt., in early 2016, when he was superintendent there. (VtDigger - Phoebe Sheehan) VTDigger — Phoebe Sheehan

Published: 2/1/2023 6:14:14 AM
Modified: 2/2/2023 6:40:30 AM

A Vermont Superior Court jury awarded $605,000 last week to the former head of a Vermont correctional facility, who contended he was fired for raising concerns about facility spending and the quality of care given to incarcerated people.

Mark Potanas, former superintendent of Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt., was fired in 2017 after the Department of Corrections said he pressured a mental health staffer to place an incarcerated individual into solitary confinement in the prison.

But Potanas’ suit argued that was a “pretext” for getting rid of someone who had been vocal about mismanagement and gone over the head of his supervisor to get funding, according to Allison Bell, Potanas’ attorney.

“He was, I think it’s fair to say, extremely gratified” by the decision, Bell said. “It’s not about the money for him. It was about feeling heard and having a jury agree that this was wrong.”

The Department of Corrections is evaluating the recent legal decision, department spokesperson Isaac Dayno said.

“The Department remains committed to providing a safe, healthy and humane environment for all those in its care and custody, particularly for those individuals considered most vulnerable,” Dayno wrote in an email to VTDigger.

Potanas worked as a corrections officer for more than a decade before being appointed in 2011 as the head of Southern State Correctional Facility, a prison that houses people with mental health conditions and a variety of medical needs, Bell said.

Bell said Potanas “loudly, repeatedly, passionately” spoke about the need for more mental health resources during his time as head of the prison. He complained that the state’s third-party contractor for those services was not fulfilling its obligations or meeting the needs of incarcerated individuals.

He also raised complaints about funding in 2016, when a construction crew came to the prison to fix leaky pipes that were causing mold, Bell said. Potanas wanted to keep the crew on longer to finish the last building. “Rather than them leaving and coming back at a later time, he could save money,” Bell said.

When the corrections commissioner refused his request, Potanas went around the commissioner’s office to the finance commissioner and asked for the funding to keep the crew on, which was approved, Bell said.

The incident that became the focal point of the state’s case against Potanas — and his claim of retaliation — came only weeks afterward. One of the facility’s mental health staffers filed a report against Potanas, claiming that he pressured the staffer to change the status of an incarcerated individual to allow the person to be placed in solitary confinement.

According to a letter from the state that was included in court documents, the mental health clinician recommended that the individual in question, E.C., should not be placed in solitary confinement or “segregation” for discipline because it could be detrimental to his health.

The clinician said Potanas yelled at her and forced her to change E.C.’s designation, the letter said. The clinician said she felt threatened by Potanas’ behavior.

Potanas filed his lawsuit later that year, claiming his firing was actually retaliation for acting as a whistleblower about the prison’s conditions, Bell said.

At the trial last week, Potanas’ side argued this was the first time in at least 30 years that a superintendent had been terminated, rather than simply transferred or demoted, Bell said.

Bell also argued that the state’s own investigation found that Potanas had not violated his work rule not to put E.C.’s safety at risk by placing him into solitary confinement.

“They should have found that he violated that rule, but they didn’t. So it all made it seem suspicious,” Bell said.

The jury deliberated for less than two hours before agreeing to award Potanas about $400,000 in lost wages and $200,000 in emotional damages.

Potanas is now retired and living in Tennessee.

The Springfield prison has been connected with other lawsuits and complaints about the treatment of incarcerated individuals. In 2016, the Human Rights Commission found that the prison had discriminated against an individual by holding him in solitary confinement for years despite his psychiatric disability. Another individual sued the prison in 2013 for failing to protect him against sexual assault.

Bell said Potanas’ case demonstrates the “old boys’ network” that corrections officers still operate in.

“They back each other up even if they shouldn’t and maybe turn an eye to misconduct that should be brought to light,” she said.

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