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Prisoners and Guards Charged With Murder as Drugs and Brutality Plague State Prisons

Vermont: Four prisoners died in the custody of the Vermont Department of Corrections during a five week period between April and May 2003. Only one died of natural causes. [Editor's Note: PLN contributing writer James Quigley committed suicide in Vermont DOC custody at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport in October, 2003. See January, 2004, PLN for details.]

Charles C. Palmer died of an overdose on April 20, 2003 in Vermont's Northern State Correctional Facility. (NSCF) An autopsy revealed that Palmer's system contained lethal amounts of morphine and alprazolom which is similar to valium.

According to Vermont DOC Commissioner Steve Gold, Palmer was not taking any medication prescribed by prison medical staff.

Eva LaBounty, a prisoner in Vermont's Dale Correctional Facility, died of a drug overdose on May 7, 2003. Her death is listed as suicide but another prisoner has been formally charged with giving LaBounty prescription drugs.

Beverly E. Pellerin faces criminal charges for supplying LaBounty with valium although valium is not one of the drugs that caused LaBounty's death. According to the death certificate, LaBounty overdosed on methadone and the antidepressants amitriptyline and bupropion.

Lawrence Bessette was found with a belt around his neck and hanging from the top bunk of his cell dead. Bessette was a pre-trial detainee confined in the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport. He had been moved from the South Burlington jail and into the prison a week earlier. A department report indicates that he was having trouble adjusting to prison life. The report also decries the practice of sending pre-trial detainees to prison. It concludes that prior to trial prisoners should "optimally" be held as close as possible, to the prosecuting jurisdiction. The report states that Bessette's personal life "may have taken a downward turn just before his death."

Attorney Dawn Seibert from Vermont's Prisoners Rights Office said that the current policy of moving non-convicted prisoners into state prisons is burdensome since it moves them far from their homes, their families and their attorneys.

Records of Bessette's death also posed special problems of interest. Forty pages of redacted records supplied to the Burlington Free Press, under Vermont's open records law contained eight blank pages and line after blacked-out line.

Guards are required to perform a physical inspection of each cell every thirty minutes. Ryan Duquette claims to have checked Bessette's cell at 3:35 p.m. but says that Bessette had covered the window of his cell as though he were using the toilet. This means that Bessette could have been hanging for almost an hour before being discovered by his cellmate.

Director of Security Lawrence McLiverty defends the guard. "There's a balance between observation and privacy that you're trying to strike," he said. McLiverty gave the same excuse in September 2001 when Tobert Lee hung himself under similar circumstances in the same prison.

Governor Jim Douglas is livid over the deaths. "It's unacceptable to have anyone die other than by natural causes in the state's custody," he said. "When someone is in the custody of the Department of Corrections we're responsible for that individual and I don't want people dying in our custody."

Douglas has ordered an investigation by Commissioner Steven Gold and Public Safety Commissioner Kerry Sleeper into the deaths and their causes. A separate legislative commission is also investigating.

Massachusetts: Former prison guard Christine Callahan was charged with manslaughter on October 2, 2002, after being accused of supplying heroin to Anthony Marchetti, a prisoner at the Norfolk County House of Correction in Massachusetts. Marchetti died of a heroin overdose on May 7, 2002.

While she was a guard at the prison, Callahan allegedly was obtaining heroin through a dealer who was a mutual friend of hers and Marchetti. When Marchetti overdosed Callahan convinced another prisoner to don a pair of gloves and retrieve the remaining narcotics from Marchetti's body. One source told reporters that the guard hoped Marchetti's death would not be discovered until the following shift. However, another source says that Callahan found Marchetti unconscious in his cell and called for help.

Norfolk District Attorney William Keating says the smuggling incident "is something the evidence shows was not a one-time situation."

Callahan maintains her innocence. Her attorney Robert Jubinville says his client "adamantly indicates to me that she did not give any drugs to any inmate at that institution" and is "heartbroken" over the accusations.

Norfolk Sheriff Michael Belotti defends the prison, calling it a "clean and safe facility." Yet he and Keating admit that keeping drugs out of the facility is a "constant challenge."

Marchetti was serving a 2 ½ year sentence for heroin trafficking. It's believed that Callahan was supplying drugs to Marchetti for cash but there is also speculation that the guard herself may have been an addict.

Several years earlier Callahan, a former stand-out athlete at Rhode Island University, fell and fractured a bone which resulted in her being prescribed OxyContin, a highly addictive pain killer. If convicted Callahan could receive up to 35 years in prison.

On July 16, 2003 Christine's husband, Brian Callahan, pleaded innocent to charges of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. The husband of the accused killer-guard is himself accused of beating a man at a bar in Weymouth Massachusetts.

Minnesota: Prison guard Anthony Pitchford was charged with third-degree murder and a second-degree controlled substance felony stemming from the September 18, 2003 death-by-overdose of Spenser Robinson, a prisoner in Stillwater State Prison.

An investigation of phone records connected Pitchford with a third party who supplied the guard with seven grams of heroin wrapped in black electrical tape. This third party admitted going to Detroit to buy the heroin and then giving the drugs to Pitchford along with $900 cash.

Prisoner Corey Bradford, a long-time friend of Pitchford, reported seeing the guard throw a package, wrapped with black electrical tape, into Robinson's cell. Bradford's statement was verified by video from prison surveillance cameras.

Pitchford originally denied all the charges. "That allegation is untrue. I knew Spencer Robinson only (in my role) as a correction's officer, but I never provided him with anything."

Eventually, however, Pitchford made a deal with prosecutors. The guard admitted to supplying Bradford with the heroin which was ultimately passed on to Robinson. Prosecutors dropped the charge of third degree murder and Pitchford will serve 44 months in prison on the second degree drug charge.

Pitchford's is the fourth case of drug smuggling in the Stillwater prison in the last five years. According to DOC spokeswoman Shari Burt past investigations have resulted in the termination of one guard and the resignation of two others.

A "tragic situation like this should never have happened," said DOC Commissioner Joan Fabian. She is now considering ways to search prison staff as they report to work. One possibility is the use of drug-sniffing dogs.

War on Drugs a Miserable Failure

Callahan and Pitchford are only symptoms of a far more insidious problem. The fact is that rampant drug corruption initiated by guards plague prisons nationwide. PLN has literally published dozens of stories on drug-smuggling guards over the years, usually in its News in Brief section. During the year 2000, thirteen percent of the South Carolina prison population tested positive for drugs. Over a five year period thirty South Carolina prison guards were arrested for drugs. Between 1992 and 1998 forty-one prison employees in Hawaii were fired or quit over drugs.

Since it is obvious that most prisoners would not have access to drugs without the cooperation of prison employees the whole situation demonstrates the futility of the current "war on drugs." That the government is unable to ensure drug free prisons would indicate that eliminating drug use is not, and never has been, a serious goal of American drug policy.

In a prison setting the government controls the perimeters and has constant 24/7 surveillance on an immobilized, docile population. Yet, it is still unable to stem the flow of incoming drugs. How much more futile then are efforts to control drug use in a free-world setting? More so when one considers the fact that illegal narcotics have no legal means of distribution or supply, yet they can be easily obtained in every town and village in America, to include its prisons and jails, at prices lower than they were three decades ago when the war on drugs was officially launched. Legalization of drugs may not be the answer but neither is the mindless imprisonment of millions of free-thinking citizens.

Sources: Associated Press, Boston Globe, Burlington Free Press, Rutland Daily Herald, The Pillar, Pioneer Press.

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