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A Massachusetts District Attorney Tries To Crown His Successor

In the Berkshire County DA race, the establishment is resorting to extreme measures to ensure it maintains power and avoids change.

Departing Berkshire DA Doug Capeless and his interim successor, Paul Caccaviello
Berkshire County District Attorney

A Massachusetts District Attorney Tries To Crown His Successor

In the Berkshire County DA race, the establishment is resorting to extreme measures to ensure it maintains power and avoids change.

Berkshire County, the sparsely populated Massachusetts region abutting New York, should be gearing up for an unusual event in the fall: an open race for the district attorney’s seat. But the departing DA short-circuited that electoral process and anointed his successor through backdoor channels. Emails obtained by The Appeal reveal how the old guard has tried to hold on to power and beat back reformers’ challenge.

On March 1, Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless stepped down after 14 years in office. The resignation was apparently a strategic move to ease the path to election for his hand-picked successor, First Assistant District Attorney Paul Caccaviello, with the help of Governor Charlie Baker.
“I’m taking this step now,” Capeless told reporters at his resignation press conference, “because I want Paul to be able to run as the district attorney, as I did 14 years ago…. I want to thank Governor Baker and Lt. Governor [Karyn] Polito for their careful consideration and confidence that Paul is the right person for the job.”

Running as an incumbent is a huge advantage, said Drew Herzig, an organizer with Indivisible Pittsfield, a local progressive group. Incumbency affords candidates the weight of the office and allows them to draw on existing donor and influence networks — no small feat in the Berkshires, where candidates don’t need a lot of money to be competitive and where reputation and connections can be key to influencing voters.

Emails between Capeless and Baker’s office, reviewed by The Appeal and included below, tell a story of what numerous criminal justice professionals and observers described as an unprecedented level of cooperation between the DA’s office and the Baker administration to handpick the DA.

The handoff appears to have received the governor’s blessing after a meeting on Feb. 7, the emails show. Baker’s chief legal counsel, Lon Povich, coordinated meetings for Capeless and Caccaviello with both Baker and Polito. Capeless sent the governor’s office a timeline for his resignation and Caccaviello’s appointment, the emails show, but Povich was unable to endorse Capeless’s proposed sequence of events until the February meeting.

Capeless told Povich he intentionally took out re-election papers before his March 1 announcement to confuse  local media.

“Still on track,” Capeless reassured Povich of the handoff to Caccaviello, “just stalling.”

Later, Povich provided feedback on Capeless’s resignation letter.

“Glad this is working out,” he wrote.

Capeless said repeatedly in emails to Povich that he was delighted that the transfer of power would ensure Caccaviello had a leg up on the competition in the Democratic primary. To that end, the departing DA presented Povich a proposed timeline that would allow the governor to appoint Caccaviello and give the new DA “ample time to form a campaign committee and gather the necessary signatures to get on the ballot.”

In a brief phone interview, Capeless said that because this was the first time he had resigned from a position, he couldn’t speak to how normal the process was. The former DA said Povich’s edits to Capeless’s resignation letter and the governor’s involvement with Capeless’s resignation timeline was “not unusual” and that he would not discuss the February private meeting.

Caccaviello was unavailable for comment for this article.

A Democrat, Caccaviello will face two progressive challengers in the primary on Sept. 4:  local defense attorneys Andrea Harrington and Judith Knight. Harrington, who was the first to publicly announce her candidacy, entered the race with an existing political machine that was ready to go after an unsuccessful state Senate bid in 2016. She told The Appeal she plans to pursue a different approach to criminal justice.

“This is a really important race for the future of Berkshire County,” Harrington said. “It’s an opportunity to move into the future with a DA using evidence-based programs that address the root causes of why people get involved in the criminal justice system.”

Restorative justice, an approach to crime that seeks to rehabilitate and repair harm rather than punish, is gaining in popularity in the country. Harrington hopes to pursue these ideals in her DA office, she said. She wants to create a citizens’ advisory board to hold her office accountable and to get input from the community for what crimes to prioritize. As DA, Harrington said, she would work to ensure not only that people who have been in and out of the criminal justice system have a chance to rehabilitate themselves without facing unfair incarceration, but also that people just entering the system have the opportunity to keep their mistakes off their permanent record.

While it’s an idea of criminal justice that might have been out of place in decades past — especially after the “tough on crime” legislation of the Reagan era — today Americans are more amenable to restorative justice and alternatives to punitive incarceration.

“The conversation over crime has been fear-based; to be a DA, you must run on being ‘tough on crime,'” said Harrington. “Now, I think because of the opioid crisis, the conversation has opened up and all people are seeing what communities of color have known for a long time: The system doesn’t work.”

It’s a theme that has become more prevalent as liberal candidates join the criminal justice system—most famously in the last year with the election of District Attorney Larry Krasner in Philadelphia.

“I was very inspired by Krasner,” Harrington said. “I look forward to working on specific policies like ending mandatory minimums, limiting fines and fees for the indigent, ending overcharging for nonviolent offenses, and diversion programs that shift resources from incarceration to programs that address underlying causes leading to criminal conduct.”

Along with the already established Berkshire County Drug Court, Harrington wants to pour resources into diversionary programs for established and new offenders. To do that, the DA’s office under Harrington would choose not to prosecute certain crimes if the defendants seek treatment and therapy.

The prospect of change, Harrington believes, scares the DA’s office. Capeless’s office has long had a reputation in the commonwealth for being particularly draconian and harsh. Locally, the former DA is known for his zealous pursuit of drug crimes: In one instance, he tried repeatedly to use school zone charges against one teenager over a decade ago. Capeless has also railed against marijuana legalization and opposed the creation of an alternative drug court.

Harrington sees the power transfer between Capeless and Caccaviello as evidence that the office is afraid of a real debate on the issue of criminal justice and fears being held accountable by the public.

“The fact that they will go to these lengths to avoid a contested election where the community is looking to have these important conversations on criminal justice just says they are afraid of that conversation,” said Harrington. “And I think they have good reason to be afraid.”

Rahsann Hall, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts’ Racial Justice Program, said the handoff is especially “disturbing” because of its impact on the democratic process. The power transfer in the Berkshires adds to the public’s misconceptions about the office, he added. In fact, an ACLU of Massachusetts poll found that 38 percent of state residents don’t even know DAs are elected.

Massachusetts has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the nation, Hall said. But that disguises an ugly truth: The commonwealth has one of the highest racial disparities in incarcerated people and a high rate of recidivism.

“This suggests that the system, as it functions now, does not work,” said Hall, “at least not in a way that promotes healthy and happy communities.”

With all the discussion around mass incarceration and the recent passage of criminal justice reform in Massachusetts, Hall said, choosing the right DA is more important than ever—though he made clear that he was not endorsing any candidate either personally or officially.

“The most significant player in the criminal justice system that has most power is the DA,” Hall said.

DAs have control over prosecution decisions, said Harrington, and that should lead to more fair and just outcomes. But Caccaviello’s office and the office of his predecessor haven’t taken advantage of that discretion. Rather, the policy of the office is that their role is solely to enforce the law, and that’s a position that Harrington disagrees with vehemently.

“The reason we have an elected DA is because the DA is supposed to be the conscience of the community,” she said. “The fact that we have a DA that doesn’t understand that should trouble people.”

What's at stake in tomorrow's highly consequential local elections

What's at stake in tomorrow's highly consequential local elections

Welcome to The Appeal: Political Report

District attorneys, sheriffs, and other law enforcement officials wield immense power over the criminal justice system. A series of paradigm-shifting victories for candidates championing significant reform has reshaped district attorney and sheriff elections, and issues relating to mass incarceration, police misconduct, and immigration enforcement have grown more salient in many other types of races as well.

In The Appeal: Political Report, I will highlight often-overlooked but highly consequential local elections, drawing out their stakes, contrasts, and repercussions. My hope is to make this newsletter a useful platform for anyone looking for a succinct but systematic overview of our fragmented local landscapes—and I’ll link to additional resources for those looking to delve deeper.

Today, I’ll be exploring a series of competitive primaries taking place tomorrow, June 26. These races have elicited some meaningful disagreements between candidates on issues such as immigration detentions, police brutality, and cash bail reform.

  • District Attorney of Boulder County, Colorado

  • Sheriff of El Paso County, Colorado

  • State’s Attorney of Prince George’s County, Maryland

  • State’s Attorney of Baltimore City, Maryland

  • District Attorney of Tulsa County, Oklahoma

  • Congressional quick hits from New York

I’ll lay out results in the newsletter’s next edition. In the meantime, you can find out the outcome of each election I discuss below as soon as it is known (no earlier than the night of Tuesday, June 26) in this database.

District Attorney of Boulder County, Colorado

On the trail and in the press, the main difference between the Democratic candidates for district attorney of Boulder County—state Representative Mike Foote and District Attorney Michael Dougherty, who was appointed to this position this year by Governor John Hickenlooper—would appear to be ones of style and emphasis. But noteworthy policy contrasts emerge in a series of thorough interviews in which the ACLU of Colorado and Yellow Scene magazine pressed the candidates for precise commitments. (You can listen to the ACLU’s interviews in full here and here, and read Yellow Scene’s here.)

In these interviews, Dougherty and Foote both back pursuing diversion programs for offenses like drug possession, limiting cooperation with ICE, and releasing demographic data on cases they process. But while they both espouse a goal of minimizing cash bail, they differ in their views of how to do so. Dougherty says that he “would like to” emulate other DAs who have instructed prosecutors to never seek cash bail for some misdemeanors; but Foote does not voice support for this when the ACLU asks him about similarly limiting his prosecutors’ discretion to seek cash bail, explaining that he would instead grant prosecutors “more discretion” to act as they deem wise in individual cases.

The two disagree as well over whether to compel the disclosure of closed police files once a police misconduct investigation is completed, with Dougherty but not Foote indicating support for state legislation that would have done so. In his answers to the ACLU, Dougherty also calls for the creation of a central database of police personnel files so that these remain accessible when an officer moves from one agency to another, and endorses methods of circumventing immigration authorities such as impromptu changes to court hearing schedules. On the campaign trail itself, the defining fault line has involved Foote’s promise to aggressively prosecute polluters for violating air and water quality; Dougherty holds that district attorneys have little authority over environmental crimes.

Sheriff of El Paso County, Colorado

El Paso County, home of Colorado Springs, has been an epicenter of the ACLU’s fight against unlawful immigration detentions. In March, a state judge granted a preliminary injunction against Sheriff Bill Elder’s practice of detaining people otherwise eligible for release because of requests by ICE; these detentions can be lucrative for counties, paid by ICE for each detention. Elder has since defended his cooperation with ICE, and in May county officials renewed their contract with the federal agency.

In the hotly contested Republican primary for sheriff, however, Elder’s opponent has attacked him for being too lenient. Elder is facing Mike Angley, a retired Air Force Colonel who as of May 31 had significantly outspent Elder because he loaned his campaign $140,000. Angley says that Elder releases undocumented immigrants too quickly, and he is campaigning on a promise to extend detentions. Angley wishes to enter into a 287(g) agreement with ICE; this would empower local officers to act as federal immigration agents. To rebut Angley’s characterization of his tenure, Elder has cited the ACLU’s lawsuit against his own detention practices as a positive.

Elder has also been hit by reports of poor medical care and inadequate food at the El Paso jail, as well as reports that an employee suffered retaliation after voicing a sexual harassment complaint. In this heavily Republican county, the winner of the GOP primary will go on to face Democrat Grace Sweeney-Maurer, who had been outraised nearly 80 to 1 by Elder as of the end of May.

In another sheriff’s race in Colorado—this one in Larimer County—Sheriff Justin Smith is running for re-election unopposed. He faces no challenger in the GOP primary, and no Democrat has filed to run against him in a county that Hillary Clinton carried over Donald Trump in 2016. Smith drew national coverage in March when he flew to the White House to meet with President Trump. Smith, who has written in defense of collaborating with ICE, talked about his opposition to sanctuary city policies and asked for federal financial help against lawsuits by the ACLU.


A public forum featuring Players Coalition members Anquan Boldin and Carl Davis asking state’s attorney candidates about their positions on criminal justice issues.

State’s Attorney of Prince George’s County, Maryland

The current state’s attorney of Prince George’s County (a populous African-American-majority county situated in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.) is running for county executive, and Maryland advocates have viewed the race to replace her as an opportunity to press for change. In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, the executive director of Progressive Maryland, Larry Stafford, laid out a range of areas—from the preponderance of pretrial detention and the insufficiency of diversion programs to officials’ attitude toward marijuana—that a new state’s attorney could transform.

In the Democratic primary, which in this county is tantamount to the entire election, the two candidates who have received the most endorsements and have raised the most money are state Senator Victor Ramirez and former state Delegate Aisha Braveboy, who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination for attorney general in 2014 (she received 20 percent statewide and 46 percent in county). Also running is Michael Lyles, a civil rights attorney.

On June 14, the Players Coalition, an advocacy organization made up of current and former NFL players, hosted a public forum where coalition members Anquan Boldin and Carl Davis asked Ramirez and Braveboy about their positions on a series of criminal justice issues. You can watch the video here.

All candidates have campaigned by emphasizing commitments to promote alternatives to prosecution and incarceration. Braveboy, who has been endorsed by the local police unions, wrote an op-ed in 2013 calling for boosts to diversion programs to diminish incarceration and criminal records. Ramirez was recently a chief sponsor of the unsuccessful Maryland Trust Act, which would have restricted state agencies’ use of resources for immigration enforcement and barred counties from joining 287(g) partnerships with ICE; he has been endorsed by Progressive Maryland. While in the legislature, Braveboy and Ramirez both voted for marijuana decriminalization and the repeal of the death penalty, two reforms that Governor Martin O’Malley signed into law.

State’s Attorney of Baltimore City, Maryland

State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby faces two challengers in Baltimore’s Democratic primary: former Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah and Ivan Bates, a former assistant state’s attorney who now works as a defense attorney. Mosby is known nationally for prosecuting six police officers over the homicide death of Freddie Gray. After the first trials resulted in acquittals and a mistrial, her office dropped remaining charges. Vignarajah and Bates have criticized her handling of these prosecutions as “rushed,” with Bates charging that she “failed Freddie Gray” by not obtaining a conviction. (These trials have become a campaign issue in a different way in nearby Harford County; here a former Baltimore City prosecutor running in the GOP primary is facing attacks by an opponent for having played a role in prosecuting police officers.) As for Vignarajah, he is best-known for currently handling the prosecution of Adnan Syed, whose 1999 conviction was investigated by the podcast Serial; Bates has promised to drop Syed’s case if elected.

Mosby and Vignarajah both returned a detailed questionnaire prepared by The Justice Collaborative. Here, as elsewhere, Vignarajah makes a range of reform commitments that Mosby rejects. You can read all of Mosby’s answers here, and Vignarajah’s here. In their answers, Mosby and Vignarajah both commit to increasing recourse to diversion programs, creating safe injection sites, adopting a presumption against prosecuting actions that are a symptom of homelessness, and considering the immigration consequences of prosecutorial decisions. (Mosby recently instructed her staff to consider these consequences.) Their responses diverge on cash bail, however. Mosby says that she would “minimize, not eradicate the role of money bail,” while Vignarajah pledges to abolish cash bail and instruct prosecutors to never seek it.

Moreover, Vignarajah is the only one of the two to answer in the affirmative on a number of other questions, including whether he commits to not seeking life without parole sentences for juvenile sentences, to fighting the automatic charging of juvenile defendants as adults, and to more often refraining from seeking maximum sentences. Bates, meanwhile, has campaigned on reducing incarceration for low-level offenses, and simultaneously on prosecuting people charged with violent offenses more aggressively than Mosby has. He disagreed with Vignarajah at a recent debate on predictive policing tools, which Bates criticized as as conducive to racial discrimination. On the campaign trail, Mosby has repeatedly attacked Bates for his work as a defense lawyer. “I didn’t become a defense attorney and defend robbers and rapists,” she said during one debate, a statement that drew direct criticism from Baltimore City Council member Ryan Dorsey.

District Attorney of Tulsa County, Oklahoma

Following the death of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed Black man shot by a police officer in 2016, Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler pressed charges against the officer who shot him, Betty Shelby. But Shelby was acquitted in 2017, and her prosecution is now a central issue in the Republican primary for Tulsa County district attorney. Kunzweiler faces Ben Fu and Tammy Westcott, both former employees of the district attorney’s office.

The Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which has warred with Kunzweiler since he charged Shelby, has endorsed Fu. Fu faults Kunzweiler for making the Tulsa police feel unsupported and for “erod[ing] the public’s faith in that institution,” as his website puts it, and says that he would have behaved differently. For one, Fu says that he would have waited to see the results of an internal investigation by the Tulsa Police Department, whereas Kunzweiler acted based on a report produced within the district attorney’s office. Kunzweiler has also faced attacks for questioning the practice of allowing police officers under investigation to take 72 hours before giving a statement.

Complicating matters, Fu has also campaigned against what he calls a “culture of overcharging.” He says that he will devote more resources to “alternatives to mass incarceration,” including for drug-related offenses. Whereas Kunzweiler opposed a state proposal to make simple drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony, Fu has responded that district attorneys should “find a way to inspire [defendants] without having to have the ‘stick’ of prison hanging over their heads.” In addition, Kunzweiler has sought to attack Fu’s standing as a police champion by going after him over a client he was defending, a teenager accused of firing at police officers; Fu then dropped this defendant, just days after receiving the local FOP’s endorsement.

Congressional quick hits

Criminal justice reform front-and-center in New York’s 14th Congressional District: In challenging Representative Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary of this Queens- and Bronx-based district, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has campaigned on a goal of reducing the country’s prison population by 50 percent. She was also among the first congressional candidates to call for the abolition of ICE, a stance with which Crowley disagrees. Crowley and Ocasio-Cortez do share many important reform proposals, including closing Rikers Island, expunging past marijuana convictions, closing private prisons, and adopting Medicare for All. Ocasio-Cortez and advocates who support her fault Crowley for being insufficiently active in pushing for such positions, and for backing measures that contradict them, such as the “Blue Lives Matter” bill opposed by organizations like the ACLU and the NAACP that overwhelmingly passed the House in May. Ocasio-Cortez also ties the fight against mass incarceration with a reduction in economic marginalization through proposals like a federal jobs guarantee.

Dan Donovan challenged in New York’s 11th Congressional District: When Michael Grimm resigned from Congress after pleading guilty to tax fraud in 2014, the Republican Party coalesced around Dan Donovan, who was then the District Attorney of Richmond County. Just months earlier, Donovan had wrapped up his investigation into Eric Garner’s death without bringing any indictment—a failure that led to widespread protests and activism in New York City and across the country. But it never became an issue in this congressional campaign, and Donovan easily won in May 2015. Fast-forward three years: Grimm is mounting a comeback for his old seat, using a campaign style that has been compared to Donald Trump’s, and he is locked in a very competitive Republican primary with Donovan. President Trump has tweeted an endorsement of Donovan. Unsurprisingly, given that Grimm congratulated Donovan for his handling of the Garner grand jury in 2014, Donovan’s actions in this case have once again not emerged as an issue within this primary.

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Why do Prisoners in Florida Keep Dying?

With privatization of the state’s prisons in full swing, this year is on track to be its deadliest on record.

Credit: Tami Jo Urban (Flickr/CC by 2.0)

Why do Prisoners in Florida Keep Dying?

With privatization of the state’s prisons in full swing, this year is on track to be its deadliest on record.

On June 6, the Florida Justice Institute filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the state’s Department of Corrections over the murder of Anthony Vidal. A prisoner at Dade Correctional Institution, Vidal was serving 15 years for a nonviolent robbery. On March 11, 2016, Vidal’s cellmate, Tarrin Blue, beat and strangled him to death, according to the lawsuit. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Miami Dade Police Department still have an open investigation into Vidal’s death.  

Blue had a history of mental illness and attacked another prisoner in front of officers just a month earlier, according to the lawsuit. Instead of placing Blue in a mental health ward, he was housed with Vidal in the prison’s administrative confinement, which is given closer supervision than the rest of the prison. Vidal was there for violating prison rules by possessing a bootleg cellphone.

For nearly 10 minutes during the attack, the lawsuit alleges, Vidal cried out for help, but correctional officers did nothing and audio in the cell had been turned off. Vidal wasn’t found until a routine check revealed what happened, and it took another 10 minutes for medical personnel and officers to arrive. No correctional officers were held accountable for placing Blue in a cell with another prisoner and failing to intervene when other prisoners tried to alert them to the attack. The Florida Department of Corrections declined to comment on Vidal’s death other than to say it is still “an open and active investigation” with the state and county police.

What happened to Vidal is part of a worsening trend in the Florida Department of Corrections. Florida is currently on track to outpace its 2017 record for most prison deaths at 428, with 97,794 prisoners in the state system. As of June 2018, 216 people have died in Florida prisons. In 2015, the Miami Herald chronicled a steep rise in prison deaths since 2000, and since then the numbers have continued to climb. A portion of these deaths are natural, but many occur under suspicious circumstances and investigations regularly take several months to years to determine a conclusive cause of death.

Based on the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 2001 and 2014, the average mortality rate among prisoners in the United States was 256 per 100,000 state prisoners. In 2014, Florida was just behind Texas in highest number of in-prison deaths with 346 total, though Texas has a substantially larger state prison population at 166,000 prisoners. Florida’s prison mortality rate has steadily increased since 2013, despite a decrease in prison population.

Critics blame the rise, at least in part, on understaffing and inadequate healthcare, problems they say have grown under Governor Rick Scott. Before Scott was first elected in 2010, he promised to reduce prison spending overall by $1 billion. His strategy was to reduce overall prison costs by privatizing the state’s prison facilities and services.

In his first budget, Scott cut 1,690 state correctional jobs and move 1,500 prisoners to private facilities. During a Florida Senate Appropriations Committee hearing in March 2017, the Florida Department of Corrections secretary, Julie Jones, noted that turnover for correctional officers had increased 95 percent since 2009, and over 75 percent of correctional officers in the state prison system had less than two years of experience.

Randall C. Berg, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute, said cutting corners on prison spending is dangerous. “The state prison system is understaffed by at least 1,000 guards. Florida is the third-largest prison system in the country. It’s very expensive to run a system this large and the legislature doesn’t want to pay for it.” Berg said.

The governor’s privatization of healthcare has also caused problems, Berg argued. The institute has filed several wrongful death lawsuits against Florida Department of Corrections and led class action lawsuits on behalf of prisoners who were denied treatment for hernias and hepatitis C. A court ordered a preliminary injunction requiring the corrections department to treat prisoners with hepatitis C in December 2017 and the department settled the hernia lawsuit for $1.7 million in April 2017.

In 2014, the Palm Beach Post reported that early in the corrections department’s contract with Corizon, one of the country’s biggest prison healthcare providers, prison deaths hit a 10-year high. Several prisoners complained of health problems being left untreated or said they were given Aleve and Tylenol to treat serious illnesses, the story explained.

One of those prisoners, Donna Pickelsimer, died after she was treated with Tylenol and cold compresses for months as her lung cancer remained undiagnosed. The same year, 48-year-old prisoner Michelle Tierney died at Lowell Correctional Institution. Tierney was reported to have cysts, pneumonia, and septic shock, which the infirmary diagnosed as arthritis. Both deaths were reported as natural. Contacted by The Appeal, the Department of Corrections said these deaths “occurred in 2014 when the department was under different leadership and contracted with a different provider for inmate health services.”

At the time, Corizon provided health services to Florida’s prisons, but the company ended its five-year $1.2 billion contract three years early in May 2016. Corizon said at the time that it terminated the contract because of inadequate funding from the state, but it had also been under fire from lawmakers and advocates for the quality of its care. Corizon declined The Appeal’s request for comment about deaths that occurred during its contract. “Providing medical information on those individuals would be a violation of HIPAA privacy laws,” Martha Harbin, a spokesperson for Corizon, said.

Shortly before the contract ended, Michael Baker, 42, died on March 10, 2016 at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in Milton, Florida, after complaining to family members for months he was being denied medicine for sickle cell disease. “Baker wrote to me over a period of weeks from the fall of 2015 until early 2016,” Baker’s attorney, James V. Cook, told The Appeal in an email. “Somehow I couldn’t get a medical release from him to review his medical files. He mentioned two nurses … He said he would complain to them of severe pain, throwing up blood and they would tell him to ‘go ahead and give up and die,’ and ‘lay your Black ass down and wear it.’ He said they refused to let him see a doctor. By the time I finally got his medical records, he was dead.”

Cook is in the discovery process of a wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of Baker, and he said the trial will most likely begin in the middle of next year. A spokesman for the Florida Department of Corrections, Patrick Manderfield, wrote in an email to The Appeal:  “The death of Michael Baker is currently still under active investigation by our department’s Office of the Inspector General. Due to its open status and the HIPAA federal privacy rule, we don’t have any additional information available to provide at this time.”

The department cited a variety of possible reasons for the recent rise in prison deaths. “The influx of contraband, specifically synthetic and homemade drugs, is a contributing factor to the increase in inmate violence and in-custody deaths,” Manderfield wrote. The department also cited an increase in an elderly prison population, defined as prisoners age 50 or older, and an increase in prisoners with mental illnesses.

But David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, says privatization is part of the problem. “The claim a private corporation can do the same job as state employees more cheaply and create profits for its shareholders sounds too good on its face and the evidence suggests it’s false,” he told Prison Legal News last year.

The most recent private contract for prison health services was awarded to Centurion, the only government contractor providing health care to prisoners held by the Florida Department of Corrections and a prolific donor to the Republican Party. The $375 million deal to provide healthcare services to all Florida state prisons is nearly $40 million higher than previous contracts to provide healthcare, and includes an 11.5 percent “administrative fee.” The department did not respond to a request for comment on Centurion’s contract.

In May 2018, Governor Scott signed an $87 billion state budget that shorted prison funding by $28 million. The Florida Department of Corrections announced plans to cut mental healthcare, substance abuse, re-entry and work release programs to cover the shortfall. “In order to secure a health services contractor, fund the increased pharmaceutical budget, and adjust for reductions, we’ve unfortunately had to make some very difficult decisions,” Jones, the corrections department secretary, said in a statement at the time. The department would not comment on current staffing levels, but a spokesperson said a 2017 pay raise for correctional officers and human resources improvements have been implemented as a result of the cuts.

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