Mystery surrounds the death of a Vermont inmate who died in a private Kentucky prison weeks after he was beaten with a makeshift mace in April.
According to the Associated Press, James Nicholson, 66, was found in the bathroom of a prison run by the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America with a cracked skull and a fatal brain bruise on April 2. The Vermont inmate was flown to the University of Kentucky Medical Center, where he told a nurse he believed the year was 1960 and Jimmy Carter was president.
Kentucky State Police investigated the attack on Nicholson, but after he died in his sleep a few weeks later, no one told police, so no death investigation was opened. He was a Vermont inmate who was being incarcerated in a Kentucky prison, the Lee Adjustment Center, for sexually assaulting a child.
Many states outsource prisoners to private companies, including Vermont, to reduce crowding at home. Kentucky no longer houses its inmates in private institutions since sentencing reform lowered its incarceration rate in 2013.
Investigators only learned of the child sex offender’s death when the Associated Press asked about it several weeks after that.
Kentucky State Trooper Robert Purdy said that if prison officials had notified police at the time of Nicholson’s death, a death investigation would have been opened.
“I can’t say why they didn’t contact us, there are so many variables. It would have been nice to know.”
Nicholson’s cause of death remains a mystery, despite a medical examiner’s determination last month that the cause of death was a result of a combination heart problems and diabetes. However, it was not determined if the attack contributed to Nicholson’s death in Kentucky.
Vermont state Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, the chairman of the Legislature’s Justice Oversight Committee, said an inconclusive determination is not a good thing.
“Anytime there’s a death, anytime it’s inconclusive, it’s a cause of concern. When it’s inconclusive like this, people will draw their own conclusions, and that’s unfortunate.”
Sears will hold a hearing Wednesday to investigate the death of the Vermont inmate serving his time in Kentucky, and two other inmates who died recently in Vermont’s prisons.
Nicholson was sentenced in 2000 to 19-and-a-half to 30 years in prison for sexual assault on a child. He was sent to Virginia in 2001, to Kentucky in 2004, and was due for release in 2020.
Jonathan Burns, a spokesman for CCA, said it was cooperating with the ongoing KSP investigation but declined to give further details pertaining to the beating. The inmate accused of attacking Nicholson has not been charged.
While requests from the AP for incident reports have been denied, Lewis Dagresto, Nicholson’s long-time friend who holds his power of attorney, pieced together details from other inmates and officials.
According to Dagresto, Nicholson was attacked in the bathroom April 2 by a man, with whom he had been arguing, with a padlock stuffed into a sock. Nicholson reportedly fell back and cracked his head on the sink and toilet.
According to prison medical logs provided to AP, the Vermont inmate was found lying on the floor, unresponsive and bleeding from the head and nose.
“I understand he was a prisoner. He did what he did and he deserved to get punished. But he didn’t deserve to get beaten half to death, get messed up in the head and die.”
Nicholson was flown to the University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington with fractures to his skull, his ribs, and his facial bones, and bruises on his brain, according to the autopsy report. Several weeks later, he was returned to the medical unit at the prison, where he died on May 18, five weeks after the Vermont inmate was returned to the private prison that has since closed.
[Kathy Nicholson via the AP]