Southern State
Southern State Correctional Facility. File photo by Phoebe Sheehan/VTDigger

A second person who was incarcerated near David Mitchell when he died at the Springfield prison this week described the 46-year-old begging for help with breathing problems before he died.

Preston Lawson, 22, who lived next to Mitchell at Southern State Correctional Facility for about a month, also described him being threatened with solitary confinement in response to his pleas.

His account aligns with much of the one shared by John White, 35, another incarcerated man who went on the record to describe Mitchell’s death to VTDigger this week.

Mitchell, who hailed from Rutland and had been lodged since November 2022 on charges related to theft, died Monday morning after he had “difficulty breathing,” according to a press release distributed that day by Vermont State Police.

Adam Silverman, a state police spokesperson, said on Thursday that state police are awaiting autopsy results, which “can take a matter of weeks to a matter of months” if a toxicology test is performed. 

The agency, along with the Department of Corrections and the Defender General’s Office, is investigating, which is a standard response when an incarcerated person dies.

On Wednesday, Corrections Commissioner Nick Deml denied any misconduct in Mitchell’s death.

“From the initial review that we've done so far, that doesn't exactly line up with the facts as we know them, or the camera footage,” he told VTDigger, referring to White’s account. 

Lawson, who spoke to VTDigger from the Springfield prison on Friday via video chat, said Mitchell was requesting to go to the infirmary or the hospital after 8 a.m. on Monday, but was rebuffed.

After Mitchell had some sort of interaction with medical staff during the morning medicine disbursal, Lawson said, a correctional officer “turned around. He said, ‘OK, calm down, Cinderella.’ He said, ‘Take a few deep breaths.’”

The interaction prompted medical staff to return to check out Mitchell, according to Lawson.

At the time, Lawson was standing in what he called a “bullpen,” an outdoors area incarcerated people can go during recreation time. From there, Lawson said he saw medical staff walk on their way to visit with Mitchell outside his cell, at which point Lawson walked inside to watch the response to his ailing neighbor.

Inside, Lawson said he watched medical staff interact with Mitchell before walking away. 

“They told him that he’d be fine. He was begging them,” Lawson recalled. 

Lawson walked back outside to the bullpen within speaking distance of the nurse who visited Mitchell. At that point, Lawson said, the incarcerated individuals observing the situation “weren’t taking it seriously either,” and the nurse laughed it off with them.

“She was like, ‘he'll be fine,’” Lawson said.

Lawson said he then watched a correctional officer walk Mitchell, who continued screaming for help, back to his cell.

According to Lawson, the officer said to Mitchell, “‘If you don't stop being dramatic and causing a scene,’ he said, ‘you're not going to the fucking infirmary, and you're not going to the ICU at the hospital.”

Instead, the officer said, “you’re just gonna go right over there to segregation,” Lawson said. 

(White, the other incarcerated person who spoke to VTDigger this week, described the corrections officer telling Mitchell to “lay down” and stop complaining or else he would “go to the hole,” which refers to solitary confinement.) 

Lawson walked back outside, and heard Mitchell yell “three or four more times.”

“I came in like five minutes later, and I looked in (Mitchell’s) cell, and (the officer) was standing in his cell nudging his dead body with his foot saying, ‘Mitchell, stop faking, stop faking,’” Lawson remembered. 

It appeared that Mitchell had fallen out of the chair in his cell and hit the wall, Lawson said, because there was “blood smeared right down the wall face first.” He said he returned outside to tell two other incarcerated people at about 9:25 or 9:26 a.m.

According to Lawson, staff performed chest compressions for about half an hour. He described Mitchell’s face as “blue as a blueberry.”

Corrections spokesperson Haley Sommer declined to answer questions about the circumstances around Mitchell’s death, writing in an email on Friday that “providing this level of detail may damage the integrity of the ongoing investigations on behalf of the DOC, Vermont State Police, and the Defender General's Office.”

Sommer said no one is currently on leave as a result of the ongoing investigations into Mitchell’s death.

Lawson’s account of Mitchell’s death aligns with the timestamps provided by state police regarding when Mitchell was found unconscious and pronounced dead. White, who spoke to VTDigger earlier this week, described those events happening 50 and 30 minutes earlier in the morning, respectively.

Both men described Mitchell crossing paths with medical staff twice on the morning that he died. Deml, the commissioner, said the first visit was for routine medication distribution. 

“Some treatment was provided that morning, and when the medical staff left, he was in good shape, under their telling of it,” Deml said in the Wednesday interview. “Our officers also didn't notice any issues with him at that point.”

Mitchell is the 12th incarcerated person to die at the Southern State Correctional Facility since January 2022, according to official reports. The prison includes an infirmary and a housing unit for elderly and chronically ill people. 

He was lodged after allegedly violating his probation related to a charge of larceny from a person, as well as a charge of misdemeanor theft, according to state police. 

The Department of Corrections last week placed the facility’s superintendent, Mike Lyon, on paid leave amid a misconduct investigation. The probe is not related to the recent deaths of incarcerated people, corrections officials have said.

The corrections department recently switched its health care services provider from VitalCore to Wellpath LLC, effective July 1.

Timothy Burgess, the Vermont leader for Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants — who was formerly incarcerated in Vermont himself — said people involved in the justice system take great personal risk by speaking publicly about life inside prison, including by talking to the press.

“It opens up the possibility of retaliation,” he said, which could include anything from being moved to a different facility, to “less obvious things like all of a sudden you’re having trouble getting a book from the library. It can be that petty.”

Burgess, who has a heart condition, also described how difficult it can be to receive medical treatment as an incarcerated person. Often, people are brushed off as dramatic, or forced to wait extended periods of time for care, he said. 

Lawson told VTDigger that Mitchell had contracted Covid-19 in the Springfield prison, which Lawson said worsened respiratory issues he already had.

“I don't know the extent of his issues. I just know it was always breathing issues. And when he got Covid, it intensified everything,” Lawson said, adding that Mitchell was brought to the hospital during his Covid infection. 

On Wednesday, Deml said Mitchell had a “robust medical history.” On Friday, Sommer, the corrections spokesperson, declined to comment on whether Mitchell ever had Covid-19, citing a federal medical privacy law.

Lawson has been lodged at Southern State since September while awaiting trial on two charges of aggravated domestic assault. Because of Mitchell’s health issues, Lawson said other incarcerated people would look out for him. 

“I have a little box he made me out of cards, still,” he said. “He was a good guy, really charismatic.”

Now, less than a week since Mitchell’s death, Lawson wonders if anything will change. He has been moved from his previous cell to a unit nearby, he said, but word of the tragedy has spread.

“All of it's really traumatizing watching someone die in front of you,” he said. 

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