Twenty-three-year-old Ashley Ellis wasn’t officially in solitary confinement, but she was alone in her one-person cell when she died last August at Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton, Vermont. She had failed to receive the common over-the-counter supplement she needed for a life-threatening condition, despite having begged for it so often that the guards were calling her “potassium girl.” The nonprofit news site VTDigger.com recently released a scathing two-part investigative series on the scandal, which stands as an indictment of privatized prison health care.
Ashley Ellis’ misdemeanor arrest turned into a death sentence. Her crime was careless and negligent operation of a motor vehicle. On Aug. 16, less than two days after she began fulfilling a 30-day sentence at Vermont’s only prison for women, she died from the careless and negligent operation of a privatized, for-profit prison health care system.
“It is a pretty blatant and obvious and extreme case of gross negligence,” said Seth Lipschutz, supervising attorney at the Vermont Defender General’s office. “We figured out in a day that they killed her.”
In January, when Tennessee-based Prison Health Services (PHS) leaves Vermont under a cloud, the state plans to hire the fifth private company in 14 years to run its inmate health care system. The contract under consideration will be expanded to absorb mental health functions.
Vermont’s serial contracts with for-profit corporations follow a nationwide pattern: Oversight is flawed, prisoner care is stingy, contractors are indifferent to or insulated from lawsuits, and states switch providers when trouble hits. Meanwhile, a fundamental conflict remains: A for-profit system thrives by cutting costs and services, while sound inmate and public health care principles demand that careful medicine comes first.
The tragic death of Ashley Ellis throws the nature of this conflict into sharp relief.