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PLN sues Prison Health Services under Vermont public records law

Prison Legal News, Jan. 1, 2010.
Press release - PLN sues Prison Health Services under Vermont public records law 2010


Prison Legal News – For Immediate Release

August 26, 2010

Publisher Sues PHS Correctional Healthcare Under Vermont’s Public Records Act

Montpelier, VT – Prison Legal News, a Brattleboro-based nonprofit that publishes a monthly magazine on criminal justice-related issues, filed a lawsuit today in Superior Court against PHS Correctional Healthcare ("PHS," formerly known as Prison Health Services), which until the end of last year provided medical care to Vermont state prisoners.

PHS was in the news in 2009 after the company’s employees were accused of failing to provide adequate medical care to Ashley Ellis, 23, who died at the Northwest State Correctional Facility after PHS staff reportedly failed to give her potassium. The medical examiner cited "denial of access to medication" as a contributing cause of her death. Ellis’ family subsequently sued PHS, and the company settled the case under undisclosed terms.

Following Ellis’ death, Vermont Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito said he had lost confidence in PHS and the company did not seek to renew its contract with the state, which expired in January 2010. A three-part series published by the New York Times in 2005 found that medical care provided by PHS was "flawed and sometimes lethal."

On August 11, 2010, Prison Legal News ("PLN") submitted a formal public records request to PHS seeking copies of the company’s contracts with government agencies in Vermont; records related to settlements and judgments that PHS had paid as a result of lawsuits and civil claims; and documents concerning costs incurred by PHS to defend against claims or suits.

Although PHS is a private company, PLN contends it is the functional equivalent of a public agency because it provides health care to prisoners – a function that government employees would have to provide if the state did not contract with PHS. The "functional equivalency" test has been applied to private companies that contract with public agencies in at least eight other jurisdictions, including Florida and Tennessee, which have held that private prison companies are subject to those states’ public records laws.

PHS rejected PLN’s records request on August 20, claiming that as "a private corporation" PHS "does not qualify as a 'public agency'" within the meaning of Vermont’s public records act.

"The state can outsource public functions and services such as health care for prisoners," said PLN editor Paul Wright, "but it cannot contract out the public’s fundamental right to know how their tax dollars are being spent and the quality of services the public is getting for its money." Wright also questioned "why PHS refuses to release records that state agencies would have to produce if the state were providing prison medical care."

According to PHS’ website, the company’s mission is to use "best practices in delivering safe, effective and efficient healthcare services in partnership with correctional clients." However, PLN noted it is difficult to evaluate the company’s best practices, effectiveness and efficiency if PHS refuses to release records to members of the public and the media.

PLN is seeking injunctive and declaratory relief in its suit against PHS, as well as attorney’s fees and costs.

The case is Prison Legal News v. Prison Health Services, Vermont Superior Court, Washington Unit. PLN is represented by St. Johnsbury attorney David C. Sleigh with the law firm of Sleigh & Williams, P.C.


Prison Legal News (PLN), founded in 1990 and based in Brattleboro, Vermont, is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human rights in U.S. detention facilities. PLN publishes a monthly magazine that includes reports, reviews and analysis of court rulings and news related to prisoners' rights and criminal justice issues. PLN has almost 7,000 subscribers nationwide and operates a website ( that includes a comprehensive database of prison and jail-related articles, news reports, court rulings, verdicts, settlements and related documents. PLN is a project of the Human Rights Defense Center.

For further information, please contact:

Paul Wright, Editor
Prison Legal News
P.O. Box 2420
Brattleboro, VT 05303
(802) 257-1342

David C. Sleigh, Esq.
Sleigh & Williams, P.C.
364 Railroad St.
St. Johnsbury, VT 05819
802-748-6618 (fax)