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HRDC Lawsuit Proceeds Over Care Provided to Florida Prisoner Who Starved to Death

by David M. Reutter

Florida federal district court has denied a motion to dismiss a civil rights action claiming that Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) officials and the FDOC’s former medical services contractor, Corizon Health, deprived a mentally ill prisoner of care he needed to prevent him from starving to death.

The suit was filed by the estate of Florida prisoner Vincent Gaines; when the trial court sentenced him, it recommended that he be housed close to his family and placed in a mental health program. [See: PLN, Sept. 2018, p.24]. When Gaines entered the state prison system on June 24, 2013, he weighed 190 pounds and stood 5’9” with a body mass index of 28.1, which is characterized as overweight.

Prison medical staff noted that he had a history of auditory hallucinations and had twice been involuntarily committed. Gaines was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, mania with psychotic features and a cognitive disability. An emergency referral in March 2014 landed Gaines in the Transitional Care Unit at the Dade Correctional Institution. His mental condition continued to deteriorate, and on November 12, 2014 he was transferred to the Crisis Stabilization Unit at the South Florida Reception Center. At that point, he had lost 39 pounds.

A disciplinary report in April 2015, for failure to obey a verbal or written order when he attempted to enter the food service area without permission, resulted in a transfer to the Florida State Prison, which was about 300 miles from his family. Gaines was then transferred to the Union Correctional Institution (UCI) on May 15, 2015 and placed on Close Management, which is Florida’s version of a Segregated Housing Unit.

His medical record from that point on indicated no issues with his behavior or mental state. Dr. Bih Tambi, a psychiatrist, noted a discontinuation of Tegretol due to an increased blood sodium level caused by that psychotropic medication. The Tegretol was not replaced with another medication, leaving Gaines’ mental condition untreated. While Dr. Tambi and Corizon employee F. Morrison reported no behaviorial or other issues of concern in Gaines’ medical file, all was not well.

The next day, on December 3, 2015, a guard contacted a nurse after noticing that Gaines had not moved or eaten since his lunch tray was delivered. Upon entering his cell, he was found unresponsive. Resuscitation efforts failed and an autopsy found Gaines was malnourished and weighed just 115 pounds – 60 percent of his body weight when he entered the prison system – and his lungs were filled with congestion. The medical examiner believed rigor mortis of the jaw had set in before paramedics tried to revive Gaines. He had been serving a five-year sentence.

In a March 28, 2019 order, the federal district court found that the complaint stated sufficient facts to support Eighth Amendment claims against former FDOC Secretary Julie Jones and former UCI Warden Kevin D. Jordan. It also found the alleged “unofficial custom or practices” of Corizon Health stated a claim for relief. As such, the defendants’ motion to dismiss was denied. Gaines’ estate is being represented by the Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent non-profit organization, and by attorney Edwin Ferguson with The Ferguson Firm, PLLC. See: Gaines v. Jones, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Fla.), Case No. 3:18-cv-01332-BJD-PDB. 

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Related legal case

Gaines v. Jones