MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — At least three Vermont state agencies are investigating to determine if anything could have been done to prevent the apparent suicide of a 38-year-old inmate at the Northern State Correctional Facility.
Robert Mossey of Burlington was found unconscious in a bathroom mop closet at the prison on Friday and was declared dead later at the North Country Hospital in Newport. Vermont State Police said it’s believed Mossey hanged himself.
Mossey’s stepfather, Todd Jimmo, a former Vermont corrections officer, said it would be impossible to prevent all such incidents in the state’s prisons, but he wants assurances that appropriate steps were taken.
“If somebody’s determined to commit suicide, you’re never going to be able to stop them unless … they’re in a room where they’re stripped naked and they have nothing they can commit suicide with,” Jimmo said.
At the same time, Jimmo said he would be surprised if an inmate was given unsupervised access to a closet that normally would be locked. That precaution would be taken mainly to guard against mop handles or other items being used as weapons, he said.
Jimmo said his stepson had been in and out of the corrections system for years, mainly due to property crimes committed to support a drug addiction. Mossey was sent back to prison in July after retail theft charge resulted in him being found in violation of an earlier probation, Jimmo said.
Jimmo’s comments came the same day news broke that a more high-profile inmate had hanged himself in Ohio. Ariel Castro, the Cleveland man serving a life sentence for kidnapping three women and raping them in his home for a decade, hanged himself in a cell in the Ohio state prison in Orient, officials there said.
Amy Fettig, a senior lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, said the prevalence of prison suicides pointed to a lack of adequate care for mentally ill inmates.
“We are placing people who really require health care and mental health care into institutions that are meant to punish,” Fettig said. “They’re not capable of dealing with mentally ill folks. They don’t have the resources they need.”
Figures from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics showed inmate suicide rates declining during the past decade. But as of 2009, suicide remained the leading cause of death among U.S. inmates.
Vermont’s prisons saw a spate of seven suicides in 18 months about a decade ago, but Friday’s was the first since 2004, Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito said in an email.
“This is a phenomenal history given that many of the reasons that suicides happen, such as alcoholism, (mental health) issues, (and) economic challenges, are very prevalent in our population,” he wrote. He said corrections staff had received extra training in suicide prevention after those incidents.
“Our staff intercede and prevent about one attempt per week,” Pallito added. One such recent incident involved Christopher Sharrow, 36, who was awaiting trial in the state prison in St. Johnsbury after being charged with second-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend, Kristen Parker, in Pittsford.
Pallito said federal law bars him from discussing Sharrow’s medical condition. He confirmed that Sharrow had been airlifted to a hospital in Boston.
State Defender General Matthew Valerio, whose office includes a prisoners’ rights division, said his was one of the agencies investigating Mossey’s death. The Vermont State Police were also investigating, and the Department of Human Resources launched a probe to see if there was any employee misconduct involved, Pallito said.
Pallito said Mossey was not on a suicide watch, which would involve corrections staff checking on him at least every 15 minutes, and Jimmo said he had questions about that, as well.
“So far, based on what I am hearing, yes I do think that he should have been,” Jimmo said.