Corrections Council finds no wrongdoing in inmate’s death

 

DOVER — At Tuesday’s Council of Correction meeting, chairman Darryl Chambers noted that he was asked on Feb. 8 by the Department of Correction to independently review the footage of an inmate’s death at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.

Mr. Chambers said to the other council members that after carefully reviewing camera footage of the incident provided by the DOC, he found no wrongdoing or negligence on the part of the agency. It’s believed that this is the first time a council member has performed this function.

Earlier this year, the DOC announced that 64-year-old inmate Robert J. Martin, had died on Jan 17. They said at the time that the body had been turned over to the State Division of Forensic Science — per standard procedure — but no “foul play” had been suspected. Martin had been serving a life sentence for first degree murder since 1977.

According to deputy commissioner Alan Grinstead, the DOC was later accused of not acting quickly enough to aid the ailing inmate after he arrived for treatment in the infirmary.

“We received the complaint, and I, along with some other members of leadership, reviewed the camera footage and didn’t see anything wrong with our response,” said Mr. Grinstead. “We gave an official response to the complaint, but I felt like the reaction was disbelief. I think the words used were ‘the fox is watching the hen house.’ We’re continuing to try to improve our interactions with community members and increase transparency, so we asked the council chair — who’s well-respected in the community — to review it. We thought it was a good opportunity to show that we have nothing to hide.”

Mr. Chambers noted at the meeting that he observed Martin in the footage enter the JTVCC infirmary seeking treatment, sit down in the waiting room and “breathe his last breath” shortly afterward. Medical staff was alerted, they responded quickly and worked diligently to revive him, he said.

Mr. Chambers also noted that EMTs arrived within minutes, but Martin was beyond helping even before staff had become aware of his condition.

“After my assessment, I didn’t see any foul play,” said Mr. Chambers. “It all happened very fast and the staff did respond in a timely manner. There was no negligence.”

The original complaint had been made by Lori Alberts, the chairman of Link of Love, a support group for inmates’ families. She claimed that inmates who where in the infirmary waiting room with Martin the day he died told her that DOC staff had been dismissive and didn’t act quickly.

Ms. Alberts, ordinarily a harsh critic of DOC policy, said Tuesday that she was satisfied by the assurances offered by Mr. Chambers.

“I appreciated the DOC’s transparency,” she said.

Precedent for transparency

To the recollection of DOC staffers and Council on Correction members present at Tuesday’s meeting, this is the first time the DOC has approached a council member for an independent review of this kind. Mr. Chambers feels it was a “precedent-setting” moment.

“This is the first time the council has ever been requested to serve in this way,” he said. “I let them know that we’ll be available in the future to perform this function if needed.”

Mr. Chambers thinks the review process may even be able to swing both ways. Instead of being asked, he says the council may now be able to request footage of contentious incidents that take place in the prison.

“It’s nice that they set this precedent — now when a complaint is filed, it allows us to at least ask for the chance to review it,” he said. “They’ve said they’re working hard on increasing transparency, and now they’re letting us hold them to it.”

Mr. Grinstead admitted that it was a different path than the DOC has taken in the past to resolve a complaint with a community member and that it may be a resource they continue to use.

“I think under the right circumstances, yes, this could be a useful function of the council,” he said.

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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