A 59-year-old Vermonter serving time for attempted murder died Sunday at a Mississippi prison, the Vermont Department of Corrections announced Monday.
Roberto Vargas of Newport City was found unresponsive in his cell at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility on Sunday morning and was pronounced dead shortly thereafter, according to a press release issued by the department.
Rachel Feldman, a department spokesperson, said it was not yet clear what caused Vargas' death, though she said it was not suspicious and did not appear to be related to a COVID-19 outbreak that has plagued the prison. According to Feldman, Vargas had tested negative for the virus prior to his death.
Defender General Matthew Valerio, who oversees Vermont's Prisoners' Rights Office, said he also was unaware of the cause of death. "The only thing I know is that it was somewhat unexpected because we aren't aware of any preexisting medical conditions that would have given rise to it," he said.
According to press reports from the time, Vargas was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison in 2017 for the attempted murder of his wife two years earlier in what was described as a drunken rage. All but 15 years of the sentence was suspended.
According to Feldman, Vargas had spent the past two years incarcerated at Tallahatchie, which is operated by the private prison company CoreCivic and which houses Vermont's overflow prison population. The state recently renewed its contract with the company. Currently, according to the department's daily population reports, 194 Vermont prisoners are detained at the Mississippi facility. Vargas is the second Vermonter to die there, following a September 2019 death by suicide, Feldman said.
The prison became the site of a major COVID-19 outbreak in July. According to the department, 185 Vermont inmates eventually tested positive for the virus. Nine continued to test positive as recently as December 7. Feldman said those prisoners were expected to be tested again this week, and all Vermont prisoners in Mississippi would be tested again next week.
Ryan Gustin, a spokesperson for CoreCivic, referred questions on Vargas' death to the department.
The incident will trigger investigations by both the department and the Prisoners' Rights Office, Feldman and Valerio said. Vargas is the first Vermont prisoner to have died behind bars since Kenneth Johnson in December 2019. Multiplereports ultimately found fault with the department and its medical contractor for failing to prevent Johnson's death, and the incident prompted the state to rethink the way it investigates such incidents.
At a press conference last month, Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith called an outside investigation performed by the Burlington law firm Downs Rachlin Martin a new example for how such inquiries should be conducted. According to Feldman, the department is close to finalizing its new investigative procedures, which she said would be followed in Vargas' case.