MONTPELIER — The state’s defender general, in a report delivered to lawmakers Tuesday, is recommending several policy changes and further inquiry after the suicide of a state inmate in August.
Defender General Matthew Valerio questioned, among other things, the care that inmate Robert J. Mossey received after he was prescribed an antidepressant by the state-contracted prison health provider.
A key lawmaker, meanwhile, frustrated by the pace of investigation and lack of information available from the Department of Human Resources after Mossey’s suicide, is seeking expanded investigative authority for the defender general.
Vermont State Police Lt. Robert Cushing told the Joint Legislative Corrections Oversight Committee on Tuesday that Mossey, 38, used a razor blade to cut a bed sheet that he then used to hang himself inside a supply closet at the prison in Swanton on Aug. 30.
Mossey persuaded another inmate to leave the closet door open, Cushing said. Inmates are routinely given access to the closet to get supplies to clean their cells and other parts of the prison, he said.
Cushing also said Mossey used a rope to tie the door closed and jammed an ink cartridge from a pen into the lock, requiring a maintenance crew to disassemble the lock to allow access to Mossey’s body.
The inmate who provided access to the supply closet had no knowledge of Mossey’s plans, according to Cushing.
Valerio, meanwhile, told lawmakers the investigation by his office’s prisoner rights division raised a number of concerns.
“Clearly, the major contributing factor to what went on in this particular case was the access that Mr. Mossey had to that room,” Valerio said.
He said other inmates discovered around noon that the closet door was shut and locked and water could be heard running in the sink. They reported that to guards, who tried at least twice between then and 1:45 p.m. to unlock the door. The keys would not enter the lock mechanism, though.
An inmate head count was taken at 1:45 p.m., and Mossey was determined to be missing, according to Valerio. Maintenance workers removed the lock, and the guards, fearing an attack, pepper sprayed the closet before entering.
Detectives investigating the death found what Cushing said amounted to suicide notes, as well as writing in a journal that explained Mossey’s state of mind.
“There were some writings in there to that effect as well,” Cushing said.
Mossey, who was prescribed an antidepressant by the health care provider in the prison, received poor follow-up care, according to Valerio.
“The directions say you’re supposed to receive frequent follow-up … because some of those medications can actually make you suicidal,” he said.
He also criticized the policy of having an inmate crew clean the scene after Mossey’s death.
“It wasn’t a pretty sight in there,” Valerio said. “There was the issue of tissue cleanup and blood and other types of things. Frankly, we’re concerned that they were not provided the appropriate protections as rubber gloves and appropriate shoes.”
Valerio called for an investigation of the care provided to Mossey by the health contractor, Correct Care Solutions. He recommended that the Department of Human Resources investigate the conduct of corrections officers and other staff.
He also said the Department of Corrections should more quickly inform the defender general about the death of an inmate, a serious suicide attempt or other assault resulting in injury.
Other recommendations included installing windows in all doors to rooms to which inmates have access.
Lawmakers had plenty of questions about the incident. Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was concerned with the amount of time between reporting the locked closet and the determination that Mossey was missing.
“They waited an hour and three quarters before doing a head count,” Sears said. “... Nobody thought it was strange?”
Valerio replied: “I don’t know that it was apparent at that time that somebody was missing. But there should have been some concern about what’s behind that door.”
Rep. Charles “Butch” Shaw, R-Florence, applauded the recommendation to stop inmates from cleaning grisly scenes. He said the practice could lead to other incidents.
“There’s way more to it than just cleaning up the mess and could possibly cause another situation,” he said.
Valerio told lawmakers the Department of Human Resources had prevented his office from interviewing corrections officers working when Mossey died. He said cooperation in the past six to 10 months has declined.
“We’ve been butting heads, frankly, with Human Resources,” he said.
Valerio cited the department’s legal counsel, Steven Collier, who is also heading up the Department of Human Resources’ own investigation of the incident, as the problem. Collier made “a judgment call based on his understanding of the law” that corrections officers should not speak to the defender general’s office, Valerio told lawmakers.
Kate Duffy, commissioner of Human Resources, denied that.
“To my knowledge no one was instructed that they could not speak to a correctional officer. If anything, it would have been a question of timing of that, at best,” she said at Tuesday’s hearing.
“I think, probably, the concern is that we ask people to maintain the integrity of a criminal investigation,” Duffy said. “We can’t stop anyone from speaking to the defender general’s office if they choose to do so.”
Duffy said her office is just now launching an investigation into the conduct of state employees. Until now her team has taken a back seat to the criminal investigation conducted by police, she said.
“We are very careful about having the ability to make sure that a criminal investigation has complete integrity,” she said. “When we have these types of cases we try to make sure that, where there is a criminal investigation, that criminal investigation takes priority.”
Sears, who pressed Duffy about the pace of her department’s investigation, said after the hearing Tuesday that he plans to move forward with legislation that would grant Valerio broader authority to conduct investigations and compel state employees to speak.
“I’m introducing a bill that would give more authority to the defender general and the prisoner’s rights group to do the investigations that by law they’re allowed to do,” Sears said. “I think the public needs to have some confidence that these types of cases are investigated and we’re looking at these things.”
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