In the first four and a half months 2023, six inmates have died at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, equal to the total prison deaths recorded in all of 2022.

The most recent death, on Monday, was likely due to natural causes, prison officials said. David Mitchell, 46, of Rutland, was found unresponsive. He had been seeing Southern State Correctional’s medical staff for breathing issues.

In an interview Wednesday, DOC Commissioner Nicholas Deml said the dozen deaths at Southern State in less than 18 months represent “a demographic shift” in Vermont’s prison population.

“Folks are getting older and they’re getting sicker when they come into the facilities,” said Deml.

Deml said Southern State has some of the oldest and sickest inmates. Some 9 in 10 take some kind of medication, with the average inmate taking more than 5 different medications.

The rise in deaths is also caused by inmates with pre-existing conditions that were untreated until they were incarcerated, Deml said.

Mitchell, who was being held for a violating his parole related to a larceny charge, entered Southern Correctional in November. Deml said it’s not clear if he was receiving treatment before he entered the prison, but many inmates do not.

“When they come into our system, we’re glad and happy to provide that medical care, but often it’s the first line of medical treatment for those individuals,” he said.

In total, seven inmates have died in Vermont prisons this year. Two died natural causes and one was self-inflicted, according to autopsies. Deml said four deaths are still being investigated, but are expected to be medical-related or natural.

In July, partly because of the DOC’s demographic challenges, the agency will start working with Wellpath, a Tennessee-based provider.

“We’re studying every death to try to see if there is some way we could have prevented it, some way to improve, and we’ll continue that continuous improvement process,” said Deml.