'They Killed Him': As A Vermont Inmate Suffered From Untreated Cancer, Officials Delayed Care

Nov 13, 2017

Bobby Hutt died of cancer in October 2014, after suffering for over a year. His sisters say the Vermont Department of Corrections "killed him" by waiting until the cancer got so bad that Bobby's leg broke beneath him.

Like many people who have lost a loved one to cancer, his sisters look back on his decline with a mix of love and despair.

Bobby's older sister, Melissa Dumont, and younger sister, Janice Hutt, spent most of 2014 fighting to bring Bobby home.

He found out about his diagnosis in January 2014, as an inmate at a privately owned prison in Arizona contracted by the Vermont Department of Corrections. Before his diagnosis, Bobby spent months requesting medical care for a pain in his leg. One day in November 2013 as he put his pants on in his cell, his sisters say, Bobby’s femur snapped.

He was sent to emergency surgery in a nearby hospital. According to a lawsuit filed by his sisters, the bone in his leg was visibly abnormal during surgery. Bobby wasn’t told about his cancer for weeks after that.

That’s one of those things his sisters still seethe about. They haven't forgiven the Vermont Department of Corrections officials who they say allowed this to happen, or the prison staff who missed opportunities to get their brother the help he needed.

“I think if they had acknowledged when he broke his femur that he had cancer and had started treatments then, he may have had more time with us,” Dumont says.

“Or if they had actually done an X-Ray when he first started complaining about his leg,” Janice Hutt adds. “You know, maybe he wouldn’t have broken it. Maybe it wouldn’t have spread, and he’d still be here.”

‘Inexplicably Ignored’

Bobby Hutt’s trouble with the law started when he was young, in the early 1980s, his sisters say. After their parents separated, Bobby lived with Melissa and one of her other brothers in their childhood home.

“One day, the cops came to the house and they arrested Bobby,” Dumont recalls. “They said that he had stolen stuff from a neighbor’s house. So I think that was, to me, that was the beginning of when he started going to jail and things started going downhill.”

Dumont says she remembers visiting Bobby in the local jail in Woodstock. She’d bring pizza.

Bobby Hutt's sisters remember him as a loving brother who would "do anything for anybody." Drug problems led to legal issues for Hutt, pictured in this undated family photo. Hutt was in prison in 2014 when he learned of his cancer diagnosis.
Credit Janice Hutt / Courtesy

Janice Hutt, Bobby’s younger sister, says he was in and out of jail for years.

“There were small stints in and out of the Woodstock jail. For petty things, but you know he started with smoking pot and it all went downhill from there,” she says. “I was pretty young so I don’t remember everything, but I think it escalated rather quickly.”

Dumont says cocaine entered the picture.

“And then heroin,” Janice says. “Heroin was his downfall.”

By 2013, Bobby had been in prison for three years serving time for three counts of assault and robbery with a weapon, grand larceny and various driving offenses, according to Vermont’s Department of Corrections.

He was eligible for release in January 2017, and the state was housing him at a private prison in Arizona because of a lack of available space in Vermont’s prisons.

Dumont says Bobby called at least once a month while he was incarcerated in Arizona.

“He would complain a little bit about his leg hurt or something like that, but nothing of any concern in the beginning,” she says. “But as time went on he started complaining a lot.”

According to interviews with advocates, letters from inmates and Vermont corrections officials, inmates are required to request medical care by filling out a “sick call slip” describing the issue and seeking an appointment. Medical staff review the slip and follow up as necessary.

According to the lawsuit filed on behalf of Bobby’s estate after his death, he filed at least seven sick call slips between February 2013 and November 2013. The lawsuit says that the prison staff “inexplicably ignored Mr. Hutt’s repeated requests for medical treatment.”

His sister Janice offers an explanation.

“They said he was 'med seeking,'” she says. “That he didn’t really have an issue, which is concerning considering they have X-ray capabilities right at the facility. It wouldn’t have taken anything to get a quick X-ray of that area to know that something was wrong.”

"They said he was 'med seeking.' That he didn't really have an issue." — Janice Hutt

In essence, Bobby’s sisters say, prison officials thought he was faking the pain in order to get drugs that he didn’t actually need. Janice says some staff were apparently more responsive, but a culture of indifference won out.

“A couple times they would bring him down to the infirmary and he would meet with this doctor or that doctor, or a nurse, and the nurse would say ‘We should really get an X-ray,’ and [the response was] ‘Oh, no, we don’t need one. He’s med seeking. It’s not important. His leg’s fine. He’s working out too much. He’s out in the yard too much. He’s playing too much basketball. You know, you’re not young like you used to be, Bob,’” she recalls.

Tom Dalton, the executive director of the advocacy organization Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, says he regularly hears from inmates with similar experiences seeking medical care.

“I think that unfortunately, when it comes to medical care for people who are incarcerated, I think a lot of times there’s an empathy gap where the providers don’t necessarily treat the people who are incarcerated the same way they would’ve treated somebody at their private practice on the outside,” Dalton says.

That “empathy gap” leads to a pattern, Dalton says.

“I just heard stories over the years repeatedly where people felt like their medical needs weren’t met and where they were allowed to suffer unnecessarily,” he says, noting that the unnecessary suffering extends to the state’s policies on medically assisted treatment for inmates.

"I just heard stories over the years repeatedly where people felt like their medical needs weren't met and where they were allowed to suffer unnecessarily." — Tom Dalton, Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform

Mike Touchette, the deputy commissioner of Vermont’s Department of Corrections, denies that staff lack empathy for the inmates in their care and under their control.

“I don’t have any knowledge of an empathy gap with Vermont inmates,” he said. “I believe in my heart of hearts that along with health services — their mental health, our efforts to reduce risk and to do strong release planning and get them returned to the community with new skills and resources and tools — I have no question in my mind that all of our staff are truly committed to providing the best level of service as possible.”

‘Your Hands Are Tied’

According to the lawsuit, Bobby Hutt’s leg broke on Nov.27, 2013. The lawsuit says that in emergency surgery to place a rod into his leg to stabilize the break, “femur abnormalities were obvious on sight.”

On Dec. 5, 2013, Bobby was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. Bobby didn't find out about the diagnosis for weeks.

“It was right after the first of the year if I remember right,” Dumont recalls. “He called me; he was crying, he was very, very upset. And he told me that he had cancer.”

For most of the next year, Bobby’s sisters and other family members made it their mission to bring him home.

Lisa Menard, Vermont’s commissioner of corrections, says she would like to make sure that inmates housed out of state can come back to Vermont if they’re diagnosed with a terminal illness like cancer.

“Provided they are medically stable, we would want them returned to Vermont,” she says. “We would want them returned to Vermont for access to their family and for family to have access to them. Not because the medical care is better or worse, but because this is more likely where their family is.”

"We would want [inmates with a terminal illness] returned to Vermont for access to their family and for family to have access to them." — Vermont Corrections Commissioner Lisa Menard

Bobby Hutt was transferred from the private prison in Arizona to Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vermont in March 2014, after weeks of he and his family trying to coordinate travel and accommodate Bobby’s chemotherapy.

Before long, complications landed him in the emergency room. As his health continued to decline, his sisters worked to get him out of prison on “medical furlough.”

“Eventually, and I think it was because the prognosis was very grim, that they finally decided that he could come home,” Dumont says.

“But even that was a process,” Janice adds. “They put us through hell.”

Both sisters say that they spent the last year of Bobby’s life so focused on getting him help that the reality of the situation didn’t set in.

In March 2014, Bobby Hutt was transferred to Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt. so that he could be close to family during his cancer treatments, his sisters say.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR/file

“Some of it is shock. Some of it is you’re going to try to do everything in your power to help him, but your hands are tied," Dumont explains. "I did a lot of begging to try to get these people to listen and to get him home. It shouldn’t have taken as long as it did to get him home. It was hard. It was very hard, but your adrenaline is just going every day. You know I work all day, I’d come home, I’d make phone calls. I was making phone calls while I’m at work, you know trying to get him home."

Janice says the whole family was working the phones to try to help Bobby.

“When you’re in that position," she says, "you don’t stop to deal with what’s actually going on in your own head. You just know you have to do what you have to do.”

Their efforts paid off. In July 2014, Bobby was allowed to go home and live with Dumont.

But the cancer was taking its toll and he was readmitted to the hospital in September. After two weeks in a physical rehabilitation facility, he came back home a week before Halloween.

“He came home on a Friday and he died Monday morning,” Dumont says. “So we didn’t have him home very long when he died.”

Touchette and other Vermont corrections officials refused to comment on the specifics of Bobby’s case without permission, citing medical privacy laws.

Bobby’s sisters refused to grant the department permission to discuss the case. “While we understand the importance of hearing all sides of the issue, we don’t want our mother to have to hear DOC running my brother into the ground again, so we won’t consent to that,” Janice Hutt wrote in an email to VPR.

‘It’s Senseless’

The Department of Corrections conducts two reviews of every death that occurs under its care, Touchette says. One is an administrative review, and one is a health services review.

“The administrative side looks at our operations — our policies and procedures — were those followed in accordance with what is expected,” Touchette says. “From the health services side … it includes a review of all the health records of the services and care that were provided to the individual.”

Officials also look at other relevant documents or allegations, Touchette said, including sick call slips and inmate grievances. Touchette says the department then makes any necessary changes to address problems if they’re found.

But in an interview more than three years after Bobby’s death, state officials refuse to say what the review of his death found and what changes, if any, were made as a result.

“We can’t talk about that specific case,” says Corrections Commissioner Menard.

Patient privacy laws that prevent officials from commenting on case specifics, a lack of transparency enshrined in state law and the very nature of prisons being secure facilities with limited access and communication, make it difficult to know the truth about the quality of medical care behind bars for Vermonters.

Cases like Bobby's suggest some inmates don't get the care they need.

Bobby’s sisters tried to get some accountability through the court system. They sued the Corrections Corporation of America and Vermont’s top corrections officials in federal court, seeking a judgment that the state broke the law and $20 million in damages.

Corrections Corporation of America, headquartered in this Nashville building, was responsible for the well-being of Bobby Hutt and other Vermont inmates at the company's Florence, Arizona facility in 2013.
Credit Mark Humphrey / Associated Press

Corrections Corporation of America settled the case and made the sisters sign a non-disclosure agreement, so they can’t say how much it was settled for. Their case against state officials never got to trial.

“We were over three years into it and the attorneys needed more money from the family, and we had done all we could, and so we had to drop that suit,” Dumont says.

For the sisters, dropping the case was a defeat they felt personally: They were carrying out one of the final wishes of their brother — it was Bobby’s idea to hire a lawyer. They felt a duty to the man they knew as a loving brother.

“He was very caring. He would do anything for anybody,” Dumont says.

"We were over three years into it and the attorneys needed more money from the family, and we had done all we could, and so we had to drop that suit." — Melissa Dumont

The legal process made the sisters cynical about the possibility of any real accountability for the mistakes that led to Bobby’s suffering. Dumont’s younger brother, who she describes as a “gentle giant,” died weak and unable to walk on his badly swollen leg, his jovial personality dulled by the cancer.

Neither sister feels like anything will happen to the people who let things get so bad.

“Unfortunately, these private prisons have very, very, very deep pockets, and when they’re doing their budgets they actually budget for people to sue them,” Dumont says. “And they allocate a certain amount of money towards it. Well, family members, most of them, don’t have those deep pockets. You go as far as you can and that’s it.”

Bobby's sisters tell the story of the final year of his life in a matter-of-fact tone, and when emotion does come through it’s a mix of bitterness toward those who didn’t do more to help, and sadness at the result. Asked if they’re angry, both sisters speak at once.

“Very,” Dumont says.

“Pissed,” says Janice. “It’s senseless.”

Dumont continues: “We wish that we could have gone and done more. We wish we could’ve really put them through the ringer like they put Bobby through the ringer. But your hands are tied, you know? Like I said, they have very deep pockets.”

‘A Population That People Don’t Want To Think About’

After a loved one dies from cancer, some families talk themselves in circles wondering if something could have been done differently. Bobby's sisters don't wonder. They know.

According to Benjamin Watts, health services director for Vermont's Department of Corrections, prisoners have a constitutional right to health care. And officials say they deliver on that right.

But Bobby Hutt's sisters tell a story of  a man desperately seeking medical care from prison staff and being repeatedly rebuffed until his problem — a terminal illness for which early detection is vital — became too severe to ignore.

“You hear stories like this all the time,” Janice says of Vermont’s prison system. “Bobby’s not the first. He’s definitely not going to be the last. And unfortunately there’s no way to change it, because it’s a population that people don’t want to think about.”

"Bobby’s not the first. He's definitely not going to be the last. And unfortunately there's no way to change it, because it's a population that people don't want to think about." — Janice Hutt

There are signs that what happened to Bobby Hutt could still be happening to Vermont inmates.

In October 2017, just before the three-year anniversary of Bobby Hutt’s death, a 68-year-old Vermont inmate named Roger Brown died in the prison infirmary in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. He wrote in his diary that he’d been seeking medical care for a pain in his ribs and shoulder for weeks without being admitted or diagnosed. He was given ibuprofen and gel insoles for his shoes to help with the pain. The county medical examiner wrote that Brown’s cause of death was metastatic cancer.

On November 2, 2017, an inmate named Tim Adams died in the prison infirmary at Southern State Correctional Facility soon after being transferred from Pennsylvania. A fellow inmate who knew Adams in Pennsylvania wrote in a letter to VPR that Adams’ ordeal began in June.

“Watch the obituaries for Tim Adams,” the inmate wrote. “He started complaining back in June of swallowing issues, couldn’t keep food down, lost 54 pounds. They finally in September found the cancer, stage four, all over. He at least got to go home, out of Camp Hill to die."

VPR will have more reporting on medical care in Vermont's prison system later this week.