LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — James Nicholson lay in a Kentucky intensive care unit, days after he was beaten with a makeshift mace in a private prison in April. His skull cracked and his brain bruised, he told a nurse he believed the year was 1960 and Jimmy Carter was president.
Kentucky State Police investigated the attack on Nicholson, a Vermont inmate, at a prison run by the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America.
But after he died in his sleep a few weeks later, no one told police.
Investigators learned of his death when The Associated Press asked about it weeks after that.
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Kentucky State Trooper Robert Purdy said that if prison officials had notified police at the time of Nicholson’s death, authorities would have opened a death investigation.
“I can’t say why they didn’t contact us, there are so many variables,” Purdy said. “It would have been nice to know.”
Exactly what killed Nicholson, a 66-year-old serving time for sexually assaulting a child, remains unclear.
A medical examiner decided last month that the cause of death was a combination heart problems and diabetes. But the manner of death was left undetermined because the autopsy couldn’t explain whether the attack contributed to Nicholson’s death.
“Anytime there’s a death, anytime it’s inconclusive, it’s a cause of concern,” said Vermont state Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, the chairman of the Legislature’s Justice Oversight Committee. “When it’s inconclusive like this, people will draw their own conclusions, and that’s unfortunate.”
Sears is holding a hearing Wednesday to look into the death of Nicholson and two other inmates who died recently in Vermont’s prisons.
Many states outsource prisoners to private companies. For almost two decades, Vermont has housed a number of inmates in out-of-state prisons to reduce crowding at home.
Since Nicholson’s death, all Vermont inmates were moved to a private prison in Michigan. Vermont officials decided long before Nicholson’s death that the newer Michigan prison could offer better security and save the state money.
The Lee Adjustment Center, the prison where Nicholson died, now sits empty.
Kentucky, too, severed ties with the private prison industry in 2013 after sentencing reform lowered its incarceration rate. Kentucky houses all of its inmates in state-run prisons.
Nicholson, a longtime boilermaker, was sentenced in 2000 to 19½ to 30 years in prison for sexual assault on a child. He was sent to Virginia in 2001 and to Kentucky three years later.
He was due for release in 2020.
CCA spokesman Jonathan Burns declined to answer specific questions about Nicholson’s beating, but said safety was a top priority for the Nashville, Tennessee-based company, and that it cooperated with the Kentucky State Police investigation.
The inmate accused of attacking him has not been charged. Kentucky State Police said the investigation into the assault is ongoing.
The details of the beating remain unclear: both Vermont Corrections and CCA denied requests from the AP for incident reports. Lewis Dagresto, Nicholson’s long-time friend who holds his power of attorney, pieced together details from other inmates and officials:
Nicholson had been arguing with a fellow inmate, he said. He was in bathroom April 2 when the man attacked him with a padlock stuffed into a sock, he said. Nicholson fell back and cracked his head on the sink and toilet.
He was found lying on the floor, unresponsive and bleeding from the head and nose, according to his prison medical logs, provided to The Associated Press by Dagresto.
“I understand he was a prisoner. He did what he did and he deserved to get punished,” Dagresto said. “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. He had fractures on his skull, his ribs and facial bones, and bruises on his brain, according to the autopsy report. He was confused and sometimes combative before he was returned to the medical unit at the prison a week later, the logs said.
The medical logs that chronicle the five weeks he spent in the infirmary describe Nicholson as alert and oriented, sometimes aggravated and consistently refusing to take his medication.
Just before 4 a.m. on May 18, a nurse wrote he “voiced no complaints or concerns.”
Two hours later, he was dead.
Ring reported from Montpelier, Vermont.