Fired for pressuring mental health staff, ex-prison chief sues

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SPRINGFIELD — The former head of one of Vermont's largest prisons is suing the state to contest his firing.

Former Southern State Correctional Facility Superintendent Mark Potanas was fired early this year after an internal investigation found he bullied medical staff into changing an assessment of a mentally ill prisoner to allow him to be held in solitary confinement, according to documents.

As a result of that incident and a broader pattern of behavior, Potanas was dismissed Jan. 5, almost five months after he was put on administrative leave.

However, in a lawsuit filed in Washington County, Potanas argues he was wrongfully terminated.

Potanas was a superintendent for five years, according to documents. He claims the state dismissed him based on "unsupported factual findings" and says he was fired in retaliation for reporting issues with training and staffing of mental health services.

The state's findings against Potanas came as the treatment of mental illness and use of solitary confinement in prisons has been under scrutiny in Vermont and beyond.

The use of segregation units for inmates with mental illness at the Springfield prison has been particularly criticized and has been the subject of legislative review, recent lawsuits and Human Rights Commission cases.

The actions that investigators said Potanas engaged in — berating workers and bullying mental health staff to change their clinical opinions — drew sharp condemnation from Corrections Department staff, mental health advocates and others in the criminal justice system.

Documents filed in court as part of Potanas' civil case detail the reasons the state dismissed him from his job.

Potanas included two letters from DOC Facilities Director Mike Touchette with his filings.

The first, sent Nov. 1, notified Potanas that he was charged with violating five internal policies and work rules after an internal review by an Agency of Human Services investigator.

The state's primary allegation against Potanas stems from an incident in July 2016, when an inmate identified by the initials E.C. was issued a disciplinary citation. The inmate was classified as "seriously functionally impaired," or SFI, a designation the prison system applies to a broad range of mental health conditions.

When SFI-designated inmates are disciplined in the Vermont prison system, their cases must be reviewed by a mental health professional. The clinician considers whether the inmate is facing discipline because of behavior that was a result of a disability. The clinician also considers the conditions imposed on the inmate and makes recommendations.

When E.C.'s file went to a mental health professional, she recommended that E.C. not be put in segregation because it could be detrimental to his health, according to Touchette's letter. When inmates are held in segregation — the term used in the corrections industry for solitary confinement — they have limited access to personal property and can be restricted to their cell for most of the day.

According to the letter, Potanas believed E.C. should be put in segregation as punishment. Potanas yelled at the clinician, said she was insufficiently trained, and told her she would need to rewrite her review to indicate E.C. could be put in segregation.

Potanas then directed a colleague to get documentation of E.C.'s history, which showed the prisoner previously had been held in segregation. On his understanding of Potanas' instructions, the colleague went to the mental health worker and told her to change her report so that E.C. could be put in segregation, the letter said.

Ultimately, according to the letter, the clinician changed her assessment "because she felt threatened by you."

The letter referred to a report completed by the Agency of Human Services investigations unit Oct. 3. AHS did not immediately respond to a public records request seeking the report this week.

Documents allude to a meeting at which Potanas and a representative responded to the state's findings. However, Potanas declined to comment for this story.

Touchette wrote in the November missive that the incident "seems to be an example of a larger pattern" of behavior.

According to the letter, Potanas also had multiple interactions with an official of the private company that provides mental health services to the state's prison system. Frank Bayles, a coordinator with Centurion of Vermont, the mental health provider, said Potanas told him his staff was made up of "rookies."

Potanas and his team were "very difficult to work with," Bayles said in an interview Thursday.

Bayles, who no longer works at Southern State, said that although the mental health staff took a rehabilitative approach to working with inmates, he felt Potanas and his team were "very punitive."

"In general mental health in that facility at that time was viewed as, you know, the enemy," Bayles said.

Potanas also was accused of instructing a different mental health worker to change her report about an inmate to say he was manipulative.

Touchette also wrote that when the recreational therapist supervisor approached Potanas about getting another position at Southern State, Potanas told her that her job is no more than "a paper cup and a string."

Others reported that Potanas "frequently" raised his voice with staff, which Touchette wrote in the letter is "an intimidating abuse of authority." Touchette sharply rebuked Potanas, who, according to the letter, had nearly 20 years of experience working with the DOC.

"It is inconceivable that you ever believed your actions tolerable or appropriate," Touchette wrote.

A second letter written by Touchette, included with the lawsuit filing, notified Potanas on Jan. 5 that he was dismissed from his position at Southern State.

The two-page letter referred to a meeting two days earlier at which Potanas presented a response to the findings against him. Touchette wrote that the arguments and information Potanas and his lawyer put forward were considered, but "they did not overcome the seriousness of your misconduct."

Potanas' attorney, Wanda Otero-Weaver, did not respond to multiple requests from VTDigger for a description of his response to the state's findings at the Jan. 3 meeting.

Touchette declined to respond to questions about the lawsuit, how widespread Potanas' behavior was, whether other staff have been disciplined in this matter, and whether affected inmates have been offered any remedy. He cited pending litigation.

Potanas first filed a lawsuit contesting his dismissal in February.

In court papers, he asserted that while he was superintendent, he reported to Corrections Department officials that he had concerns about inadequacies in the prison's mental health system — particularly issues with staffing, training levels for mental health staff, safety and wasteful spending.

He asserts he was fired in retaliation for making reports about inadequate mental health services. He also argues the department violated its own policies in determining a sanction for his alleged misconduct.

The suit charges that the department used "unsupported factual findings" in the decision to fire Potanas.

Potanas responded to a request for comment on this case through his attorney, Otero-Weaver, that he could not comment "given the pending litigation."

The attorney general's office, which represents the DOC in the case, petitioned the court to dismiss the case. The AG's office disputed whether Potanas could challenge his termination under the procedure he is using.

A judge earlier this month denied the motion to dismiss.

The state's findings against Potanas raised concerns among people who work with inmates in Southern State.

Defender General Matt Valerio, whose department includes the prisoners' rights office, said the allegations that Potanas influenced mental health contractors to suit his purposes are serious.

"If true that's a very big deal," he said.

Valerio was limited in what he could say about the situation, because his office represents every inmate in the state, and he is restricted from speaking about specific cases because of attorney-client privilege.

However, he said that in general he did not see the issue as a systemic one.

"I think you had some bad apples who came through the system and moved around the system. Sometimes they rise to the top, and that's what happened here, I think," he said.

AJ Ruben, an attorney for Disability Rights Vermont who works frequently with inmates at Southern State, said he wasn't surprised by the findings against Potanas.

"I don't find it surprising, but it certainly is disappointing," Ruben said.

Disability Rights Vermont has been an outspoken opponent of using segregation for prisoners with mental health.

In one case, an 18-year-old man with mental illness identified by the initials C.S. was held for 2 years alone in a cell at Southern State with limited access to recreation, books, television and human interaction.

His case was taken up by the Human Rights Commission.

Disability Rights Vermont is now representing him in a lawsuit against the state, the medical services contractor Correct Care Solutions and Potanas.

The lawsuit alleges Potanas "willfully and maliciously" authorized keeping C.S. in an environment without adequate treatment or accommodations.

Since Potanas' removal from the helm of Southern State about a year ago, the use of segregation has decreased.

As of November, the mental health stabilization unit was empty. According to DOC staff, it has been used minimally since then.

Occupancy of the prison's segregation unit, Foxtrot, is down so much that earlier this year the DOC sought to revamp part of it to hold inmates in less-restrictive conditions.

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