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Jail Newspaper Sues VT's Former Prison Health Providers Over Inmate Death

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Here's a fascinating lawsuit that will test the legal boundaries of Vermont's public-records statute.

Prison Legal News (PLN), a Brattleboro-based nonprofit that publishes the nation's largest jailhouse newspaper, filed suit today against PHS Correctional Healthcare — formerly known as Prison Health Services — seeking documents related to the August 2009 death of a female inmate at Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans. Until last year, PHS, a Brentwood, Tenn.-based private corporation, was contracted by the state to provide medical services to inmates in all of Vermont prisons.

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On August 16, 2009, Ashley Ellis, a 23-year-old Rutland woman who suffered from anorexia and was serving a 30-day sentence, was found unresponsive in her cell and later pronounced dead. The state's chief medical examiner determined that a contributing factor in her death was the "denial of access to medication" by the prison's medical staff. Ellis' family eventually settled its lawsuit with PHS for an undisclosed sum.

Late last year, the Vermont Department of Corrections decided not to renew the company's five-year contract when it expired in January.

According to a PLN press release issued today, the Brattleboro nonprofit submitted a formal document request to PHS Correctional Healthcare under Vermont's open-records law, seeking "copies of the company’s contracts with government agencies in Vermont; records related to settlements and judgments that PHS had paid as a result of lawsuits and civil claims; and documents concerning costs incurred by PHS to defend against claims or suits."

PHS Correctional Services subsequently denied that request, claiming that, as a private company, it wasn't subject to Vermont's public-records law. However, in a complaint filed in Vermont Superior Court, PLN contends that the prison health provider served as the "functional equivalent" of a state agency, as it provided a service that would otherwise be delivered by the state. According to PLN Editor Paul Wright, this "functional equivalency" standard has been successfully applied to private corporations providing similar services in other states.

“The state can outsource public functions and services such as health care for prisoners,” Wright said, in a statement, “but it cannot contract out the public’s fundamental right to know how their tax dollars are being spent and the quality of services the public is getting for its money.” Wright also questioned “why PHS refuses to release records that state agencies would have to produce if the state were providing prison medical care.”

Representing Wright and PLN is attorney David Sleigh of Sleigh and Williams of St. Johnsbury, who filed suit today in Superior Court in St. Johnsbury. Seven Days has profiled both Wright and Sleigh in separate cover stories in recent years.

The full text of the complaint can be found here: Download PLN v. PHS, complaint


File photo of attorney David Sleigh by Andy Duback

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