a man in a suit and tie speaks into a microphone.
Department of Corrections Commissioner Nick Deml said, “(W)e can improve how we demonstrate our commitment to transparency by communicating the findings of these reviews as they conclude.” File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Vermont Department of Corrections announced on Thursday that it has hired a law firm to help create a process for making findings from its investigations public.

The firm, northern New England-based Downs Rachlin Martin, will also review the department’s ongoing death investigations and recommend “areas of improvement,” according to a release.

“The Department has a thorough process for handling emergencies as they unfold,” Commissioner Nick Deml said in the release. “But we can improve how we demonstrate our commitment to transparency by communicating the findings of these reviews as they conclude months later, which is why I have asked Downs Rachlin Martin to lend us their expertise.”

Currently, the department may release some information after an investigation but lacks a formal process. 

Following a death in Vermont’s prisons, Vermont State Police and the Defender General’s Office initiate investigations. The Department of Corrections typically investigates last so as not to interfere with the other ongoing inquiries. Its investigations can include interviews with staff and incarcerated individuals and reviews of video evidence and medical information.

The department also investigates other critical incidents such as severe injuries and attempted escapes, according to Isaac Dayno, policy director for the department. 

In the last year and a half, Vermont has seen a spate of deaths in its prisons.

At least 16 people have died in Vermont’s prisons since January 2022, 12 of whom died at Southern State Correctional Facility. In April, VTDigger interviewed multiple eyewitnesses who said that David Mitchell had repeatedly pleaded for medical attention and was threatened by a correctional officer in response to those pleas, before he died in his cell at the Springfield prison.  

The latest deaths in Vermont’s prisons represent a spike over past years. An average of three people per year died in state correctional facilities from 2017 through 2021. 

Deml, the corrections commissioner, has said that Vermont’s prison population is increasingly sick. About 1,000 of the 1,300 people in the department’s custody suffer from a chronic illness — a 47% increase since 2015, he’s said. The average person in custody is prescribed 5.5 medications, and 70% of people are prescribed psychotropic medication (those that affect mood or behavior), according to Deml.

The newly hired law firm will help in “designing a new system to document findings and actions taken in response to critical incidents,” according to the corrections department. Recommendations are expected later this summer.

VTDigger's southeastern Vermont reporter.