Do America’s Sick, Aging Inmates Deserve the Right to Die at Home?

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Vermont inmate Bobby Hutt, who suffered from cancer, was able to spend his final days at home only because his sisters lobbied prison authorities. Photo by elizabweth Murray/Free Press.

Two photo albums encompass Bobby Hutt’s 48 years of life.

Black-and-white photos show him as a baby petting a dog, and as a moppy-haired boy playing basketball. The pages lead to an adult Bobby in a blue jumpsuit standing in a prison yard with two other inmates.

Hutt, who died from cancer four years ago shortly after he was granted medical release from prison, spent 30 years struggling with drug addiction, which repeatedly got him in trouble with the law.

His sister Melissa Dumont fought tears as she looked at the photos. Those she prefers are an image of Bobby captured between his prison sentences, wearing a backward baseball.

“That was Bobby, he always wore his hat like that,” Dumont said.

A unrecognizable Bobby stares back from the following page: a skeletal man in a hospital bed. His eyes barely open, he manages a weak smile for the family members who came to say goodbye.

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Bobby Hutt’s sisters Janice Hull (left) and Lisa Dumont. It took more than a year of efforts to obtain his release from an Arizona prison on compassionate grounds. Photo by Elizabeth Murray/Free Press

Those final moments would have been impossible without the fierce advocacy of Bobby’s sisters, who lobbied to bring him back to Vermont from an out-of-state prison and then to get him home.

Dumont and Janice Hutt made hundreds of phone calls to navigate a complex and often unclear process while they say their brother wasted away. They can’t imagine what would have happened if they hadn’t been fighting for him.

“He would have died in Arizona,” Hutt said.

Vermont is one of 49 states to pass compassionate release legislation, which is a special dispensation for inmates suffering from terminal or serious illnesses to die outside prison.

The need for such laws is likely to grow, as the nation’s aging prison population is at risk of chronic and terminal diseases that corrections officials and inmate advocates say are more appropriately treated outside prison.

Typically, in Vermont, the population of inmates who are 55 and older has increased in the past five years, even as the total number of inmates has dropped.

Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums and a national expert on compassionate release, says the U.S. as whole underuses compassionate release.  She gives Vermont’s laws — officially termed medical furlough and medical parole — a B-minus or C-plus.

Thanks to Bobby’s sisters, he died holding his mother’s hand.

But not all inmates get the chance to end their days close to loved ones.

Vermont offers an example.  While prison officials are supposed to initiate consideration of medical release when an inmate presents severe health issues, those providing inmate health care have sometimes failed to recognize terminal illnesses.

That was likely the case for Roger Brown of Windham County who was among about 270 Vermont inmates sent to SCI-Camp Hill in Pennsylvania in June 2017. He died there in October.

“[From] everything we’ve seen both from Roger and the witnesses, it appears to be obvious that he was ignored,” said James Valente, the lawyer for Brown’s estate.

Valente said he is still collecting evidence, but no information has yet been released publicly that suggests otherwise.

Brown developed cancer while incarcerated, but it’s unclear whether he knew about it.

Brown’s diary chronicles months of illness, for which he was treated with ibuprofen, and was told his chronic pain was not a medical emergency. Weeks before he died, he could barely move from his bed.

“We were continually rebuffed and refused medical attention,” wrote his cellmate Clifton Matthews, 67, who took over the log of Brown’s deterioration when he could no longer write.

“[He was] told repeatedly it was all in his head, even at the point he could no longer stand or sit up.”

Sending people out of state creates an extra layer of issues when trying to identify who might qualify for medical furlough or medical parole, said Vermont Defender General

Matt Valerio, of Vermont’s Prisoner’s Rights Office, said trying to get information from SCI-Camp Hill was “a nightmare,” since the prison contract stipulated that grievances must first go through the Pennsylvania administration.

Valerio said he was unaware of the severity of Brown’s condition since his office never received any complaints or grievances.

Typically, he said, when the office hears an inmate is in that condition, the agency’s staff begins to communicate with the inmate’s family and the Vermont Department of Corrections about options for release.

More than 200 out-of-state inmates from Vermont have since moved to a prison in Mississippi.

 RELATED: Why Vermont inmates eligible for medical release often remain behind bars

‘You Felt Like You Had to Beg’

Bobby began noticing pain while was serving 10 to 15 years in an out-of-state prison for three counts of assault and robbery with a weapon.

He put in multiple sick slips to be seen by a doctor and get an X-ray, his sisters say.

“Everybody always accused him of med-seeking,” Hutt said.

“You’re a drug addict, you’re med-seeking.”

Dumont said she continued to insist, in almost monthly conversations with her brother, that he keep asking for an X-ray.

“It got so bad that he would end up crawling on the floor because he couldn’t stand,” she said.

Bobby’s femur snapped underneath him while he was putting on his pants in November 2013 after months of receiving ibuprofen for pain management, but not much further treatment. That’s when Dumont and Hutt say they began their yearlong fight to secure their brother’s return to Vermont and his eventual release.

In Vermont, the decision about who is eligible for medical release is made by prison staff and officials. There is no formal process for families to advocate for the medically necessitated release of their loved ones. Inmates can request consideration for release through sick slips, but are given no other options to advocate on their own behalf.

The sisters made hundreds of phone calls trying to find someone who could help. Some people hung up on them.

They sent emails. A number went unanswered.

“You felt like you had to beg,” Dumont said.

Lisa Menard, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Corrections. Photo by Glenn Russell/Free Press

When first asked whether the Department of Corrections made information on medical release available to inmates’ families, Commissioner Lisa Menard said all policies were accessible on the agency’s website.

A review of “Friends and Families of a Person Incarcerated in a Vermont Correctional Facility,” which is posted on the department’s website and was last updated in 2017, failed to list any explanation of medical release options.

The other uploaded document, a “Health Services Handbook,” which was last updated in 2007, briefly defines the three types of medical furlough.

The section concludes: “If you have questions about your loved one’s health there are several steps to take.” But, rather than outlining actions that can be taken or listing departments to contact, the Q&A that follows repeatedly instructs concerned family members to consult the inmate.

In a follow-up conversation, Menard said she was unaware that the resources referenced in her previous conversation with the Free Press were so out-of-date and confusing.

“That’s a good catch,” Menard said. “I truly thought that there was more information in those, and that is unfortunate. We will make those more accessible.”

Menard said the handbooks were due for an update and she would like to bring inmates’ families into the process.

“We want family members involved in these cases, we really truly do; and certainly we need to make some more effort to make sure it’s easy and clear to find out how to do that,” Menard said.

Bobby’s sisters say they eventually made contact with Vermont’s out-of-state unit supervisor, who kept them in the loop. That connection gave them a leg up in trying to navigate the process.

Two months after receiving an advanced cancer diagnosis, Bobby was brought back to Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vermont. When his family went to visit, the healthy, athletic man they remembered had all but disappeared. Bobby could barely walk.

For their mother, seeing his condition was devastating.

“This damn near killed her,” Janice Hutt said. “I think she lost nearly 60 pounds.”

After that, the sisters say Bobby Hutt didn’t want them to visit as much. It was too painful physically, and he didn’t want them to see him so sick.

The family continued to work with the Vermont Corrections Department to coordinate an approved residence and medical coverage if he was released from prison. Dumont converted her living room into a bedroom where Bobby’s hospital bed was placed, and, in August, Bobby was finally released on medical furlough.

Two months later, Bobby was dead. But, home.

“For all that we went through, he died where he wanted to die,” Dumont said.

 This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story by Elizabeth Murray, a staff writer with the Burlington Free Press, as part of her 2018 John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellowship. The full version and sidebars are available here. A video interview with Hutt’s sister can be accessed here. Follow Murray on Twitter at @LizMurrayBF.

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