Several weeks after the suspected suicide of a Vermont inmate, lawmakers are questioning corrections officials about how they handle signs of self harm in the prison population.
The family of Robert Mossey, the inmate found dead Aug. 30 in a mop closet at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, came to the Statehouse on Monday to find out how the state could have prevented his death. The family members didn’t testify before the Corrections Oversight Committee, but Mossey’s mother, Ellie Jimmo, held up a poster board sign with her son’s photo. A phrase scrawled beneath in marker said: “What could have been done!”
Corrections officials told lawmakers Monday that there was little they could say about Mossey’s death. Those constraints derailed lawmakers’ lines of inquiry — without knowledge of where the lapses in oversight, if any, occurred in Mossey’s cases, lawmakers concluded that the answer to Jimmo’s question was, for the time being, not a whole lot.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said, “Part of the problem is no one can talk about what happened until November, at the earliest, so we’re kind of at a loss. I hate this part of the job.”
The Vermont State Police, the Department of Human Resources and the Defender General’s Prisoner Rights Office are each carrying out separate investigations. Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito said he doesn’t expect to have all the information in hand until November. Until then, he cautioned, “I don’t want to jump to the conclusion that staff did anything wrong.”
According to Pallito, the corrections officer who oversaw Mossey’s unit in Newport had 72 inmates under his supervision.
After the hearing, Todd Jimmo, Mossey’s stepfather, said he didn’t expect the panel to come up with a cure-all. “You’re never going to prevent it,” he said.
But Jimmo, who worked for 10 years as a corrections officer at the St. Albans facility, did have a few policy suggestions.
“When you’ve got 70 inmates you can’t pay attention to all of them and know what’s going on, mentally and emotionally. You can’t,” he said.
Jimmo also said he didn’t have a lot of faith in the screening tool the department uses to identify at-risk inmates. Inmates going through that process, he said, treat it as a cursory chore.
Dr. Delores Burroughs-Biron, DOC’s health services director, walked lawmakers through the screening procedure.
A corrections officer fills out a survey for each new inmate and passes the results on to a health professional. The level of supervision an inmate receives depends on the score. If the score is higher than eight, the inmate is put on an “individual safety plan” and receives more supervision.
After that, the department relies heavily on corrections officers to notice if a troubled inmate becomes distraught.
According to Michael Touchette, the correctional facilities director, officers receive eight hours of training on how to prevent self-harm before they start the job and two hours each subsequent year.
Burroughs-Biron said it’s vital that corrections officers have “their ears to the ground at all times”; lawmakers said the system has too many weaknesses.
“Unfortunately, in many cases the CO (correctional officer) is not the person they would take into confidence,” Sears said.
Rep. Martha Heath, D-Westford, asked Burroughs-Biron if inmates played a role in alerting officers about their at-risk peers.
“I don’t think it happens as much as I would like to see it happen because of the fact that it is a prison and snitching is not a good thing,” Burroughs-Biron responded. The department has running a campaign “along the lines of “‘Be a snitch and save a life’” to encourage more communication, she added.
Jimmo believes a lot depends on the officer.
“As far as identifying it, that’s where the problem is,” he said. “You’ve got some officers that really, really care and really pay attention and then you’ve got some officers that are there for a paycheck.”
But, even among those who care, there’s room for “human error,” Jimmo observed.
“I had 10 years of suicide training with the Department of Corrections. I missed it, and I’m his stepfather.”
At the outset of the conversation, Pallito reminded the committee that up until Mossey’s death, there hadn’t been a suicide in a state correctional facility for nine years. “The department has had a 100 percent success rate in this nine-year period,” Pallito said.
But lawmakers weren’t ready to accept that “success rate” at face value.
Beyond keeping tabs on the number of self-harm incidents that staff prevent — a statistic Corrections tracks — it’s difficult to quantify the department’s track record in this regard.
Burroughs-Biron said the department has seen an increase in suicide attempts, and they are studying those incidents to see what they have in common and whether “anything could have been differently.”
During the month of June, there were 49 episodes of self-harm among inmates, according to DOC data.