Vermont legislative panel criticized for putting off discussion of inmate deaths

Associated Press

The Vermont Legislature's Corrections Oversight Committee came in for some criticism Thursday over its decision not to look immediately into the recent deaths of three prison inmates.

Annette Douglas, an inmate nearing release from the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, died in January of complications from a medical condition. Patrick Fennessey committed suicide at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield in April. James Nicholson, a Vermont inmate at a private prison in Kentucky, died May 18, several weeks after being assaulted in that facility.

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Gordon Bock of the prisoner rights group CURE Vermont says he hoped the deaths would get a hearing at Thursday's meeting of the oversight committee. Bock, who attended, said in an interview it was "disappointing that the committee that has oversight in its title is not vigorously overseeing what happened here, what happened with these three prisoners."

Sen. Richard Sears, chairman of the committee that meets periodically during the summer and fall when the full Legislature is out of session, said the main purpose of Thursday's meeting was the election — or re-election — of committee leaders and setting the agenda for future meetings.

He also noted that Defender General Matt Valerio, whose office includes the state's prisoners' rights office, was unable to attend the session and that Vermont officials had not yet received autopsy results from Kentucky authorities investigating Nicholson's death. Nicholson was an inmate at a prison run by Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison firm with which Vermont has contracted.

"I made a commitment to take it up at the next meeting," Sears said.

Also Thursday, Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito and Deputy Corrections Commissioner Lisa Menard updated the committee on plans for a move of the 280 Vermont inmates housed out of state — mostly in Kentucky but a few in Arizona — to a facility operated by the private prison firm GEO Group in rural Baldwin, Michigan.

Benefits include a cost savings to Vermont, a somewhat closer location for families that wish to visit inmates and a better, more modern facility, the officials said. They said they expected the move to be completed by July 15.