Group sues for Vt. prison health info

By Wilson Ring
Associated Press Writer / August 29, 2010

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MONTPELIER, Vt.—A prisoners' rights group is asking a court to order a company that provided health care in Vermont's prisons to release details of any lawsuits it has settled in Vermont.

Prison Legal News, a self-help magazine and inmate advocacy organization based in Brattleboro, is suing a company formerly known as Prison Health Services in hopes of getting a court to find that the company is, in effect, a public agency subject to public records law.

The Brentwood, Tenn.,-based company, which is now known as PHS, was contracted by the Vermont Department of Corrections from 2005 to 2009.

Prison Legal News had asked the company for its Vermont records earlier this month, but the request was rejected. The company said it wasn't bound by Vermont's public records law.

So the publication filed suit in Washington County Superior Court. The suit was filed Tuesday, according to Prison Legal News attorney David Sleigh, of St. Johnsbury.

"The state can outsource public functions and services such as health care for prisoners," said Legal News editor Paul Wright. "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."

The records being sought by Prison Legal News could include details of an out-of-court settlement reached earlier this year between PHS and the family of Ashley Ellis.

Ellis, a 23-year-old Castleton woman, died last year while in prison, three days into a 30-day sentence for negligent operation of an automobile. An autopsy found she died because she wasn't given potassium pills she needed to counteract a heart condition caused by an eating disorder.

Her family settled out of court.

Lawsuits like the one now filed by Prison Legal News can help identify patterns, although it's "a very imperfect way of measuring progress," Wright said.

"Is the Ashley Ellis case a truly isolated incident, or were there other cases related to the quality of their care?" Wright said.

PHS's Vermont attorney, Samuel Hoar Jr., said his client had a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

In the suit, Prison Legal News asks for disclosure of how much PHS has paid Hoar's firm -- Dinse, Knapp and McAndrew, of Burlington -- in legal fees.

Prison Legal News has successfully litigated the same issue in other states, according to Sleigh.

"It's part of their mission to make this private prison industry more transparent for the taxpayers," Sleigh said.

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