Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘vermont

Vermont Supreme Court: Prisoners Transferred Out-of-State Have Same Rights as In-State Prisoners

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The Vermont Supreme Court recently ruled in a case that, although legally binding only for Vermont prisoners, may be of broader interest to the many states that transfer inmates to out-of-state facilities because their own prisons are overcrowded. Out-of-state prisons are typically run by private companies that may impose different rules, and may provide prisoners with fewer rights and privileges, than state-run facilities. So, the question that logically arises is whether it’s permissible to treat prisoners differently based solely upon the happenstance of where they’re housed, or whether out-of-state and in-state prisoners must be treated equally. This week’s Vermont Supreme Court ruling suggests the latter, in a ruling with two parts. First, the court holds that out-of-state prisoners are entitled to all the same statutory rights and privileges that in-state prisoners have under Vermont law. Second and potentially farther reaching, even for rights and privileges provided for by prison policy rather than statute, the court suggests that out-of-state prisoners may have a viable equal protection challenge under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Here are the facts: Vermont’s prisons have two rules in place to facilitate inmate communication with family and friends outside. First, when making phone calls, inmates have a statutory right to choose between making collect calls or paying with debit calling cards. Second, although this rule is not statutory, prison policy is to provide all inmates with up to seven free postage stamps per week. It so happens that, through a contract with the private Corrections Corporation of America, Vermont houses about 600 prisoners in a private Kentucky facility where inmates can only make collect calls (which are more expensive and which don’t always work with cell phones) and receive no free stamps. But, the Vermont Supreme Court recently held, all Vermont prisoners, regardless of where they’re incarcerated, have to be afforded their state statutory right to calling cards. As for the postage stamps, the court remanded back to the trial court to flesh out the record on whether there’s a constitutional equal protection violation. That component of the ruling may be of broader interest since it’s arguably a closer question, and rests not on Vermont law but on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment: Read the rest of this entry »

Two Days into Her 30-Day Sentence for Misdemeanor Negligence, Vermont Woman Dead Because of Prison Staff Negligence

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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.”

Written by sara

March 11, 2010 at 10:56 am

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