Two Days into Her 30-Day Sentence for Misdemeanor Negligence, Vermont Woman Dead Because of Prison Staff Negligence
After Ashley Ellis of Rutland, Vt. got into a car accident that left a motorcyclist partly paralyzed, she developed anorexia and bulimia, “going from a healthy, 120-pound 21-year-old to a depressed, 86-pound 23-year-old.” Ellis was convicted of misdemeanor criminal negligence for her role in the accident and sentenced to 30 days in prison (along with community service and the indefinite loss of her driver’s license). Within two days of arriving at Vermont’s Swanton prison to serve her term, Ellis was dead of complications from low potassium. The state medical examiner listed “denial of access to medication” as the cause of death. Although Ellis had mentioned to several prison staffers that she needed prescription potassium pills, the prison was out, and no one ever made it to the pharmacy to pick up a new supply. At the time, Vermont’s prisons contracted with Prison Health Services to provide medical care; in part because of Ellis’s death, Vermont did not renew PHS’s contract when it expired and now contracts with Correct Care Solutions. Although the Vermont police tried to investigate the death, they were stonewalled by Prison Health Services employees, who were told by the company’s lawyers to keep quiet. The state will not file any criminal charges against PHS employees, but Ellis’s parents are considering a civil lawsuit.
I’d recommend reading the Times Argus article on this tragic case, which is full of inexplicable details that illuminate the absurdity that America’s prison system has become. Why would a prison nurse in Vermont have to e-mail a “regional supervisor” in California for approval to order medication for an inmate? Why did two nurses scheduled for work that day fail to report, leaving one nurse to do the work of three? Why would a prison’s method of communication regarding inmate medical needs be voice mail, when the night-shift nurse “didn’t usually check her messages” until the next day? Why would an inmate’s receiving needed medication be dependent upon whether or not the on-duty nurse decided to extend the “courtesy” of stopping by the local Rite Aid on the way to work? After Ellis died, a filled-out casework request form was found under her bed, reading, “On Tuesday I’d like to meet my case worker to discuss my meds and get everything straightened out.”