HRDC files suit over starvation death of Florida state prisoner
By John Pacenti - Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Updated: 10:49 a.m. Friday, August 03, 2018 | Posted: 3:34 p.m. Thursday, August 02, 2018
When Vincent Gaines started serving his five-year prison sentence for burglary, the West Palm Beach resident weighed 190 pounds. He was also known to be bipolar and psychotic with borderline intellectual functioning.
In fact, his prison intake information described him as stocky.
When he died, the 5-foot-9 Gaines weighed 115 pounds and was found naked with what appeared to be feces caked to the bottoms of his feet. He had lost 75 pounds in 2½ years.
Somehow, under the supervision of prison guards and a company paid to provide medical care to inmates, the 52-year-old prisoner starved to death in his cell at Union Correctional Institution, according to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday by his family and initiated by the Human Rights Defense Center in Lake Worth.
The death again put the spotlight on Corizon Health, the for-profit medical health provider that in 2015 walked away from its $1.2 billion, five-year contract with the Department of Corrections after an award-winning Palm Beach Post investigation. Corizon claimed it was losing $1 million a month and it was a fiscal decision, but it left its contract after reports of inmates dying for lack of adequate medical care.
Corizon’s spokeswoman, Martha Harbin, said the company is prohibited by privacy laws to discuss Gaines’ medical condition and treatment. “But we have fully reviewed his medical record and feel confident that appropriate evidence-based care was provided,” she said.
The Department of Corrections, a defendant in the lawsuit along with Corizon, had yet to be served with the lawsuit to review it, but spokesman Patrick Manderfield said the “department is committed to ensuring all inmates have access to appropriate health services.”
Gaines was survived by his mother, two brothers and a sister — Lorine, Randolph, Glenn and Sylvia — but they never got word of his death. DOC buried Gaines on prison property.
“Vincent’s death is yet another tragic tale of a large corporation valuing its profits more than human life,” his family said in a statement. “No one deserves to die like Vincent did — starving and alone.”
The Gaineses’ attorney, Edwin Ferguson, said that if Gaines had received adequate care from DOC and Corizon — both of which were well-versed in his mental illness — then he would have served his sentence and be out of prison by now.
“He was sent to prison to serve a five-year term, not to die,” he said. “Too many people are dying in our prisons. We have to end this.”
FDOC was well aware that Gaines wasn’t able to properly eat on his own without supervision ensuring that he got enough nutrition, said attorney Masimba Mutamba of the Human Rights Defense Center.
“If prisoners go on hunger strikes, there are protocols in place to initiate force-feedings,” he said. “So it was either gross negligence to the point that no one was checking on him at all or there was the deliberate withholding of food or supervision. Either way, there is no excuse for a mentally ill prisoner starving to death.”
Gaines’ family said his lengthy criminal record was exacerbated by his mental illness. By the time he caught the burglary charge in 2012 for breaking into a West Palm Beach apartment, he was already a repeat offender and served prison time.
A judge recommended he serve time near his family and Gaines was placed in Dade Correctional Institution near Miami. Even by that time, Gaines was “exhibiting mood swings, auditory hallucinations, paranoia, disorganized thinking and was talking to himself,” according to the lawsuit.
While at Dade, Gaines destabilized further by urinating and defecating on the floor of his cell and refusing treatment. He was placed on suicide watch and fed a boneless diet in a Styrofoam tray, without utensils, according to the complaint.
Gaines then got in trouble in April 2015, when he mouthed off to a guard after trying to go into the prison cafeteria without permission. Gaines ended up with a disciplinary report, ironically, for trying to get some food, Ferguson said.
Shortly thereafter, Gaines was transferred to Florida State Prison in Raiford and then to UCI nearby. There he was placed in “close management” to keep him apart from the general population.
Records show that by Sept. 29, 2015, Gaines had largely stabilized and no longer demonstrated psychosis or bizarre behavior, the lawsuit says. Less than three months later, he was dead.
How Corizon’s medical staff could not see that Gaines was wasting away in his cell is one of the questions the lawsuit hopes to answer.
“This is just one more example in a long line of poor treatment of the mentally ill by Corizon,” Mutamba said.
Ferguson added: “We have not been able to get a straight answer from Corizon or FDOC, but we certainly expect to get that answer now.”
Tennessee-based Corizon’s troubling record is well-documented. Inspectors in September 2015 — shortly before the company pulled out of Florida — released a blistering report on the lack of adequate medical care provided by prisoners.
Three prisoners with cancer were misdiagnosed by Corizon and given ibuprofen for their tumors. Two of the inmates died. Also, mentally disturbed inmates were inexplicably taken off their prescribed psychiatric medication, inspectors found.
Corizon settled another federal lawsuit brought on behalf of mentally ill prisoner Carlo Daniel Laudadio, who in October 20111 had been booked into the Lee County Jail, where the company also provided medical treatment.
Laudadio — off his medication and never seen by a proper Corizon doctor — hung himself in the shower after an altercation with guards, the lawsuit states. It was settled.
In a separate lawsuit filed last week in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, the Human Rights Defense Center filed a complaint against Corizon, claiming it is failing to comply with Florida’s public records law. The center has asked for all administrative and lawsuit-related payouts involving the company from 2011 to 2017.
“That is when you really discover how abusive the system has been,” Mutamba said. “That is how you find out all the wrongful deaths, misdiagnoses — all of those things. And, of course, we haven’t received any documents from Corizon.”
The Gaines family is hoping for more than just a monetary settlement in the lawsuit. They want the Florida prison system to stop just warehousing the mentally ill and start treating them.
“Vincent was a loving son and brother who struggled with mental illness for most of his adult life. We miss him dearly,” the Gaines family said in a statement. “We hope that this case will help to bring about prison reform nationwide.”