The family of a Vermont man who tried to hang himself in a prison cell in Newport — and is now in a hospital intensive care unit — is blaming the state Department of Corrections for not properly monitoring or providing mental health services to him behind bars.
The DOC and other state agencies are investigating the suicide attempt. Wayne LePage, 39, of North Troy, is currently at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, his brother, Brent McClure, also of North Troy, said Tuesday.
“He was placed in DOC care for his safety until a bed was going to be available at the Brattleboro Retreat,” one of Vermont’s two inpatient mental health facilities, McClure said of his brother. “And he was only there a couple nights and he was able to hang himself off a desk, which is unheard of.”
McClure said his brother tried to hang himself by using a bedsheet he tied to a desk while he was in a segregated cell Thursday at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport. LePage was initially taken to North Country Hospital in Newport where he was put on life support before being transferred by helicopter to Dartmouth-Hitchcock, McClure said.
McClure said the family is going public with his brother’s story because they didn’t want it to be kept “hush-hush” by the corrections department.
“DOC obviously, clearly, needs better mental health care,” he said. “They are not set up to handle a crisis patient, I mean you can’t just throw somebody in the hole that’s having a mental health crisis and expect he’s going to be good.”
LePage was arraigned in Orleans County criminal court in Newport on Monday, June, 29, on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, domestic assault, and aggravated domestic assault in the first-degree. He pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The charges stem from a dispute a day earlier that involved several family members and LePage allegedly making threats while armed with a crossbow, according to court records.
Judge Robert Bent, at the arraignment hearing, ordered LePage held without bail at the Newport prison until he could secure a bed at the Brattleboro Retreat.
Al Cormier, facilities executive with the Vermont Department of Corrections, said Tuesday the department is conducting an internal investigation into the suicide attempt and had already been in the process of reviewing mental health protocols.
Cormier said that LePage was in a cell by himself at the Newport facility not as a result of mental health concerns, but due to Covid-19 precautions. All new prisoners there, Cormier said, are kept in quarantine for 14 days.
LePage, he added, was on 15-minute observations. “Newport facility has put everybody who goes into quarantine on 15-minute observations — so there’s somebody checking those cells every 15 minutes.’
Cormier said a review or records shows that the 15-minute checks were conducted for LePage.
During the intake process upon entering the facility, Cormier said, nothing indicated “self-harm” concerns with LePage, including through a screening tool meant to identify such issues.
“He was not on suicide watch per se, but he was on those 15-minute checks,” Cormier said.
McClure said his brother should have been on suicide watch, or least provided more mental health crisis services, given that he was awaiting a bed at the Brattleboro Retreat for mental health treatment.
Also, McClure said, court records filed along with the charges against his brother included statements from family members that LePage was going through a mental health crisis.
“None of us family members wanted him charged,” McClure added, “we wanted him to get treatment.”
An affidavit filed in support of the charges against LePage does indicate that the family member wanted mental health treatment for LePage, not a criminal prosecution.
McClure said his brother suffered a traumatic brain injury as the result of a car accident and also had a seizure disorder.
LePage has served time in prison before. One time while behind bars in 2015 he was charged with assaulting a guard. However, following a trial in 2017 LePage was acquitted of that charge, according to a report from the Caledonian Record from that time.
The newspaper reported that LePage, who is gay, testified he struck the guard at the Newport prison in self-defense, upset that the guard denied him bathroom privacy and called him homophobic slurs.
Cormier said the corrections department, the state Department of Human Resources, and the state’s Prisoners’ Rights Office, will all be conducting an investigation into the latest matter.
Asked if he believed the corrections department handled the situation correctly, Cormier responded, “I don’t know. That’s part of why we do our investigation.”
Emily Tredeau, supervising attorney for the state’s Prisoner’s Rights Office, said Tuesday that she couldn’t comment at this time on the LePage matter. She said, that by law, her office investigates suicide attempts that result in more than 24 hours of emergency hospitalization.
Attorney William Cobb, who represented LePage at the arraignment, said Tuesday he would await the outcome of the investigations before commenting on the care his client received while in the corrections department’s custody.
“I won’t make any comment about whether or not I think anybody did anything wrong because I don’t have the facts right now,” he said. “There’s a lot about what happened that I still don’t know all the details.”
Cobb added that his concern at the moment was the health of his client.
“Right now Wayne is still at Dartmouth, and really the concern for the family is just to see if he can get better,” Cobb said. “I just try to focus on that part of it, these other things we can worry about later.”
Cobb did say that at the time of the arraignment last week it did not appear that LePage was suicidal.
“Suicide is not something that was really evident at the time of his appearance before Judge Bent,” Cobb said. “Had there been something more along the lines of that than obviously it would have been presented to the court differently.”
Once a bed at the Brattleboro Retreat opened up, McClure said, LePage was to be released to the custody of his mother who would take him to the treatment center.
“We were trying to get him released into my mother’s care at his arraignment,” McClure said, “but because they wanted to keep him safe and others safe they chose to hold him there until a bed was available.”
However, on July 2, before a bed at the Retreat became available, LePage tried to hang himself. McClure said it seemed his brother forcibly leaned back with the bed sheet tied tight around his neck. “He must have had a lot of willpower,” McClure said.
McClure said initially after their brother was taken to the hospital, the family had a difficult time receiving information about his care or visiting him since he was still in the custody of the corrections department.
Shortly after the incident, McClure said, his brother’s attorney, Cobb, filed a motion to have the charges against him dismissed without prejudice, which was ultimately granted by the judge. When a case is dismissed without prejudice it can be refiled.
“Now one family a member a day can visit him and get information from the hospital,” McClure said. He added of his brother, “He’s a good kid, sometimes he just has mental crisis issues and it’s just unfortunate we’re in this situation with him.”
Correction: A previous version of this article included photos and captions incorrectly stating that Wayne LePage attempted to commit suicide at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans. It occurred at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport.
Stay on top of all of Vermont's criminal justice news. Sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on courts and crime.