Palm Beach Post reporter Pat Beall began investigating prison health care after three physicians spoke with her about the deteriorating conditions they witnessed firsthand.
To substantiate their observations, Beall requested mortality figures from the Florida Department of Corrections under the state’s open records law.
But the figures did not provide enough detail to know whether the doctors were right.
Beall requested specific information about causes of death, which she believed should have been readily available amid the huge databases of information kept by the state.
DOC denied her request to break down monthly inmate mortality data by broad categories.
Two months later, DOC published the records on its website, saying “The Florida Department of Corrections is committed to providing information to the public in a timely and accurate manner.”
Beall and Post data editor Kavya Sukumar analyzed DOC’s monthly death data from 2000 through Aug. 1 to determine whether deaths were rising under the newly privatized health system.
Deaths classified as accidents, homicides or undetermined — 3.7 percent of the total — were discarded. Included in the analysis were deaths from natural causes, such as disease, as well as suicides and those listed as “pending.” Suicide is a medical issue because psychiatric care is part of the prison health care companies’ contracts. Based on 15 years of DOC data, most “pending” cases are determined to be a death from natural causes or suicide as opposed to murder or accident.
Beall also looked at all federal suits brought by any Florida inmate between 2004 and 2014 against Wexford Health Sources or Corizon Inc., as well as Corizon’s predecessors, Prison Health Services and Correctional Medical Services.
In addition to the more than 350 Florida suits, she examined lawsuits in Kentucky, Maine, New York, New Mexico, Idaho, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Oregon and New Jersey and pored through state audits and monitor reviews.
The family of Donna Pickelsimer, who died in June after her cancer was treated for months with Tylenol and warm compresses, gave Beall access to more than 800 pages of medical records.
Beall also corresponded with dozens of Florida inmates, their families and lawyers. Several spoke despite fear of retribution.
Some correspondence didn’t get through. Letters Beall sent to an inmate who witnessed Pickelsimer’s deterioration at Hernando Correctional prison were twice returned to The Post. One was returned because it contained a paper clip, one because prison officials said the inmate’s ID number was not correct, although her name was clearly legible.