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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)

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.