Florida Prisons

Family fights for autopsy after Florida prison death

Michael Baker
Michael Baker Florida Department of Corrections

Over the past year, Michael Baker said he had been beaten, that his gold teeth had been kicked out of his mouth and that he had been sprayed with chemicals by corrections officers he alleged were punishing him for filing complaints and writing letters to his family begging for help.

Starting in September, he called his sister several times a week, crying, because, he said, the nurses at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in the Panhandle were not giving him his medicine. Baker had sickle cell disease, a genetic blood disorder.

For most of his prison years, according to his sister, Betty Simms of Fort Pierce, his disease had been under control. But sometime late last year, he began to have severe symptoms — and claimed that he was being refused treatment by the prison’s medical team, run by a private company, Corizon.

It’s just heartbreaking. I have a series of five or six letters in which, in letter after letter, he tells me the nurses are making fun of him, they are telling him to go ahead and just die.

James V. Cook, attorney for Michael Baker

When he got sick, he told his attorney, nurses told him to “sit his black ass down’’ and “just give up and die.’’

On March 10, Baker, 42, died just hours after he was transported from the prison to a private hospital. His death is under investigation by the Florida Department of Corrections and Corizon.

One thing is clear: For months before his death, Baker believed his life was in danger, and that if he wasn’t killed, he would die from medical neglect.

Medical Examiner Andrea Minyard declined to conduct an autopsy, relying on a review of the inmate’s medical records, as is permitted in the event of an attended death, the Department of Corrections said. His family and attorney asked the FDC to push for an autopsy, saying they suspect Baker’s death was the result of abuse and medical negligence. McKinley Lewis, spokesman for the department, said such matters are at the discretion of the medical examiner.

Sickle cell disease is a genetic red blood cell disorder. The drugs used to treat the disease include anti-metabolites, analgesics and antibiotics. According to the National Institutes of Health, the lack of tissue oxygen can cause attacks of sudden, severe pain. These pain attacks can occur without warning, and a person often needs to go to the hospital for effective treatment, particularly if he or she is suffering from stomach pain.

In December, Baker’s cellmate was so alarmed by Baker’s condition that he wrote to Baker’s attorney saying that Baker was in “complete agony’’ and that the nurses were “rude” and refusing to treat him. Baker was losing control of his bowels and waking up in the middle of the night with severe stomach and gastrointestinal pain, he wrote.

Simms stopped hearing from her brother about a week before his death. She said she called Santa Rosa almost every day, but prison officials would not give her any information about his condition, even though he had told his attorney he signed a medical release authorizing Simms to obtain his medical and health information.

Baker’s attorney, James V. Cook, wrote several emails to the prison asking them to expedite a medical release, and before he died, Baker wrote to Cook, saying he had completed the paperwork. But Cook never received the release and suspects that someone at the prison intercepted it, along with a log book that Baker said he kept detailing everything that happened to him.

When a prisoner dies in the hospital while under medical care, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is not required to investigate it. The FDC inspector general is reviewing the circumstances of his death.

“There’s an old saying in the Department of Corrections,’’ said Cook, a Tallahassee civil rights attorney. “Nobody ever dies in the Department of Corrections. You make sure the finding of death is when they are in the ambulance or at the hospital.’’

Jeff Martin, a spokesman for the medical examiner’s office, said he could not release a cause or manner of death because the case is still open in the eyes of the FDC. Meanwhile, Simms was arranging a private autopsy for her brother.

Over the past two years, the Miami Herald has written a series of stories about the deaths of inmates in the Florida prison system. At least three of the death cases the Herald has scrutinized happened at Santa Rosa, including the savage beating of Ricky Martin, whose 2012 death recently resulted in a federal civil rights lawsuit.

Deaths in Florida prisons remain at an all-time high, which can be attributed in part to a steadily aging prison population. Last year, the system logged 354 deaths, about one per day. Most deaths in the prison system are classified as from natural causes.

Baker had been assigned to the Northwest Florida Reception Center in Chipley prior to being transferred to Santa Rosa. Cook said Baker claimed he had been assaulted by officers at NWFRC, where he had also been sprayed with chemicals, even though Baker suffered from asthma.

At Santa Rosa, due to his asthma, he had been placed on a no-spray list.

“It’s just heartbreaking,’’ Cook said of Baker. “I have a series of five or six letters in which, in letter after letter, he tells me the nurses are making fun of him, they are telling him to go ahead and just die.’’

In a letter to the department, Cook demanded an autopsy. He pointed out that an FDC inspector had been informed of Baker’s complaints well before his death and that Baker feared that he was being refused medical treatment because he had filed complaints.

Some of the complaints, obtained by the Herald, allege that Baker believed he was being charged $5 for infirmary visits that didn’t occur or didn’t result in treatment.

Cook said he has seen a pattern of abuse, particularly at Santa Rosa, where the same names of officers and nurses connected to alleged wrongdoing keep coming up. In one of the letters, Baker identifies a nurse and said she kept telling him to die.

The nurse’s name “pops up in half the letters I get,’’ said Cook. “I’ve already deposed her in one case; I feel like I know her.’’

Patient safety is our primary goal as we provide compassionate, responsive, medical care in a correctional setting.

Corizon statement

The nurse has no discipline on her license. She is employed by Corizon, the private company whose troubled tenure is ending in a couple months amid allegations that it provided substandard care.

A spokesman for Corizon, Martha Harpin, released a statement:

“We extend our sincere condolences to Michael Baker’s family and loved ones. Patient safety is our primary goal as we provide compassionate, responsive, medical care in a correctional setting. We will conduct a full review of his case and, if warranted, will take appropriate action.”

A new private healthcare provider is set to take over in May.

Baker’s inmate records show that he had been in and out of confinement — a restrictive form of incarceration away from the general population — since he was sentenced in 2007 to 15 years in prison on drug charges. He also had a long disciplinary record, mostly for disobeying orders, disrespecting officials and disorderly conduct. In his letters he alleged that officers were writing up false disciplinary reports against him in order to keep him in confinement and prevent him from receiving his medication.