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Jim Kenyon: For Sam Ramsey, a Case of Dungeons and Dragons

Sam Ramsey began to struggle with mental illness in elementary school. He s spent the last 11 years half of his life, so far living in institutions, starting with a Vermont residential school for emotionally disturbed boys in fifth grade. The institution where Ramsey has spent the last 3 years is a Vermont state prison, a place where far too many people with mental illness end up and if Ramsey s experience is typical, where they receive little treatment. It s been a rare Sunday morning that Kerrie Ramsey hasn t made the 125-mile drive from Windsor to the Northern State Correctional Facility, Vermont s 400-bed prison on the Canadian border in Newport. She stays for two hours, which is all the visiting time the Department of Corrections allows each week.

On her next visit, she won t go home alone. Nine days from now, Sam Ramsey will complete his sentence for an assault that occurred at the state s only locked facility for juveniles when he was 16. (The state couldn t ship him to an adult prison until he turned 18.)

I ve waited so long for this, Kerrie Ramsey told me. I can t believe he s actually coming home this time. It s been a hard road. In the summer of 2000, Kerrie and her three sons were living in a Hartford campground. That s where I met them while working on a series called The Other Side of the Valley. Sam was 5. A few years ago, I re-connected with Kerrie who told me about her youngest son s struggles with several psychiatric illnesses and his incarceration. I ve written occasionally about Ramsey s time in prison, including when he earned his high school diploma in 2015. Last Friday, he reached another milestone graduating from Community High School of Vermont s workforce readiness program that teaches inmates valuable technology skills, among other things.

Ramsey is now scanning the help-wanted ads, eyeing a warehouse job that pays $14 an hour. He s also planning to apply at convenience stores and restaurants.

I ll take whatever I can get, said Ramsey, who hopes to start classes at Community College of Vermont this summer. But his freedom could be short-lived. Why? Last June, Kerrie Ramsey mailed her son a book that was part of a role-playing fantasy board game, sort of like Dungeons and Dragons, that inmates are allowed to play.

Prison security must approve inmates reading materials that come through the mail. Ramsey s book passed muster. Shortly thereafter, he was flipping through the book when a guard noticed a page with a picture of a gun, which is against prison rules. Or, at least, this particular guard s rules. Ramsey didn t take the news well that a book from his mother that had already been approved by prison security was being confiscated.

According to a state police affidavit, here s some of what followed:

Standing outside his cell, Ramsey became highly agitated and began using four-letter words. A guard ordered Ramsey back into his cell. When he didn t comply, another guard blasted Ramsey with pepper spray. He was also handcuffed. At this point, at least four guards were involved in hauling Ramsey, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 230 pounds, to the box prison slang for solitary confinement. A guard reported that Ramsey spit at him, hitting him in the eye. Ramsey, who suffers from asthma, told me that it was unintentional. The pepper spray had flooded into his mouth, nose and eyes. Being in handcuffs, he couldn t wipe his face, he said.

Ramsey spent 38 days in the box, passing the time doing push-ups and reading science fiction novels. He was allowed out for an hour a day to shower and stretch his legs. Determining what happened between Ramsey and the guards should be fairly easy: The prison has a hand-held camera for guards to videotape use-of-force encounters. But when a state police investigator asked for video, he was told that none existed.

Mike Touchette, director of facility operations for the Department of Corrections, told me that when the incident occurred, the hand-held camera was being used to video a facility staff drill. The battery was exhausted and before a new one could be retrieved the incident had ended. Orleans County State s Attorney Jennifer Barrett charged Ramsey with assault with bodily fluids on a correctional officer. If convicted of the misdemeanor, he faces up to two years in prison. The case is likely headed for trial this spring. But Ramsey is in a tough spot: His public defender is leaving this month. His replacement will have to hurry to get up to speed on the case.

Ramsey turned down a plea deal that called for a prison sentence of 11 to 12 months. That doesn t sound like much of a deal. The last thing he needs is more prison time. What he needs is a little time to put his life together and state officials who recognize that the best way to deal with his mental illness is through outpatient treatment, not incarceration. In last Wednesday s column about the Norris Cotton Cancer Center, I goofed. I wrote that the cancer center had arranged for a massage therapist to treat a patient at her home following surgery for a malignant brain tumor.

Norris Cotton, through money raised in the annual Prouty, provides massage therapists for patients, according to its website. But in this patient s case, the therapy was provided by The Hand to Heart Project, a nonprofit that provides free in-home massage to people with advanced cancer.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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