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A relative’s photo of Kenneth Johnson, who died by asphyxiation in a northern Vermont prison infirmary in December 2019.

Two years after Kenneth Johnson suffocated to death in a northern Vermont prison infirmary, his estate has filed suit against the state government, its former medical contractor, and eight people involved in his care and incarceration. 

The lawsuit, filed this week in Washington County Superior Court, alleges that the Vermont Department of Corrections and its agents negligently failed to diagnose and treat a tumor that led to Johnson’s December 2019 death by asphyxiation at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport. Johnson, according to the suit, experienced “extreme pain and suffering” and “extreme psychological distress” in the hours before his death, as guards and medical staff ignored his pleas for help.

The wrongful death and medical malpractice lawsuit further alleges that the department and its then-medical contractor, Virginia-based Centurion Health, discriminated against Johnson, a 60-year-old Black man, due to his race. 

In addition to the state and Centurion, defendants include Centurion’s former medical director, a doctor, three nurses and three corrections officers. Johnson’s estate is administered by his sister, Olynthea Johnson.

James Valente, an attorney representing Johnson’s estate, said Thursday that his Brattleboro-based firm Costello, Valente & Gentry has been involved in about a half-dozen lawsuits in recent years against the corrections system. Each suit involved allegations of negligence or cruel and unusual punishment toward incarcerated people, he said.

Valente said such suits are “high-risk” but important in provoking change in the system and improving the lives of incarcerated people.  

“The process of doing this is quite challenging, but it’s very rewarding to represent an estate in this type of case because it’s a very, very significant matter,” he said.

Valente declined to comment on whether any settlement talks preceded the lawsuit. 

He said he has been able to review many documents and other materials related to the case but still has not been able to obtain others, including surveillance videos.

Rachel Feldman, a spokesperson for the corrections department, said in a statement on behalf of the department that it is “committed to the humane and equal treatment of all individuals in our care.” 

The department had no comment on the specifics of the suit, she said. 

An email seeking comment from Centurion officials on Thursday was not returned.

At the time of his death, Kenneth Johnson was being held without bail on charges of sexual assault of a minor and human trafficking. He had pleaded not guilty and was awaiting trial. 

Though the Department of Corrections initially claimed that Johnson appeared to have died of natural causes, a fellow incarcerated person told Seven Days a week after his death that Johnson had spent his final hours struggling to breathe and begging for medical attention. That man, Raymond Gadreault, later found Johnson’s dead body in the Northern State infirmary in which they were both lodged.

Subsequent investigations — conducted by the Office of the Defender General, Disability Rights Vermont and other entities — found prison medical staff failed for weeks to provide the care Johnson needed to diagnose the tumor in his throat. On the night of his death, according to the defender general’s report, prison staff ignored, threatened and physically restrained Johnson — at one time telling him to “knock it off” and threatening to send him to solitary confinement if he continued to request assistance. 

“He died after hours of struggling to breathe while nearby nurses did nothing to help,” the report concluded. 

Johnson’s care was so poor, the state’s chief medical examiner separately found, it “might rise to the level of criminal neglect,” Seven Days reported in July 2020

Yet another investigation, conducted by the law firm Downs Rachlin Martin on behalf of the state, found fault with the Department of Corrections and Centurion, concluding that the two entities “could have and should have done more to assist Mr. Johnson during his health crisis.” In their November 2020 report, Downs Rachlin lawyers wrote that “implicit bias likely played a role” in Johnson’s substandard treatment, though they added that it was “impossible to determine with certainty whether racial bias played a role in this tragedy.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: Alleging racism and negligence, estate sues state over death of incarcerated Black man.

This content was originally published here.

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