MONTPELIER, Vt. — Vermont has agreed to pay $35,000 in the case of a man picked up on a disorderly conduct charge and ordered to undergo a mental evaluation, but who advocates say was mistreated in prison where he spent a week when there was no room for him in a health facility.
Disability Rights Vermont, a federally contracted group that looks out for the rights of people in Vermont's mental health system, said Randall Corkins was incarcerated at the Southern State Correctional Facility last year after a judge ordered the evaluation. While incarcerated, Corkins was pepper-sprayed three times, the group said.
"During his week in prison, Mr. Corkins, a person experiencing a mental health crisis, was repeatedly subjected to segregation, uses of force and pepper spray, and sustained injuries because his disoriented state prevented him from complying with commands, all while not receiving the level of care that would have been provided in a hospital setting," Disability Rights said in a statement.
The group's supervising attorney, A.J. Ruben, said Corkins was pepper-sprayed during his August confinement not because he was threatening violence to prison staff but because he was refusing to move in instances such as a prison-wide contraband search in which inmates are required to leave their cells.
Under the settlement, which was joined by the attorney general's office and the state Human Rights Commission, the Department of Corrections agreed that when it is housing people awaiting a mental health evaluation, the department will not use force unless the inmate is threatening or harming someone.
The settlement comes as the state continues to struggle with a shortage of mental health beds following the 2011 closure by flooding from Tropical Storm Irene of the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury. The state has been using smaller, interim facilities and private hospital psychiatric units. But advocates for people with mental illness say the steps taken haven't been enough and likely won't be even after the state opens a 25-bed psychiatric hospital in Berlin next summer, as planned.
Chief Assistant Attorney General William Griffin said the settlement doesn't end the current practice of placing people with disabilities in prison who've been ordered into a hospital for an evaluation.
"I don't think anyone thinks it's OK," he said. "If there's a court order that someone should be held and evaluated for a mental health assessment, the best practice and what they try to do is place them in a mental health facility. But if there's no bed in a hospital, they will hold the person in a correctional facility. That was the policy then and that's the policy now."