Mentally Ill South Florida Man Starved to Death in Prison, Lawsuit Alleges

Vincent Gaines allegedly starved to death inside Union Correctional Institution.
Vincent Gaines allegedly starved to death inside Union Correctional Institution. Florida Department of Corrections
When Vincent Gaines was sentenced to five years in prison on robbery charges in June 2013, state officials recommended he be placed in a mental-health unit because he had regular visual and auditory hallucinations. So Gaines was transferred to the Dade Correctional Institution in South Miami-Dade County, where he was placed on a "boneless diet" that left the five-foot-nine man 40 pounds lighter — dropping from 190 to 151 — in just 18 months.

After accumulating a series of disciplinary reports, Gaines was shuffled through multiple prisons before winding up at the Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, Florida, where he soon died. In his autopsy, he weighed only 115 pounds and showed obvious signs of malnourishment, advocates say.

Now Gaines' family says the evidence is clear: He was starved to death inside the state prison system and then buried on Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) property without their knowledge or consent. His mother, Lorine, sued FDOC head Julie Jones, former for-profit prison health provider Corizon Health, and Union CI warden Kevin Jordan in North Florida federal court. The Palm Beach Post, which published a stinging investigation into Corizon Health's deadly failures across Florida in 2014, first reported on the lawsuit yesterday afternoon. To file the suit, Lorine Gaines partnered with the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), a nonprofit that fights for the rights of ex-prisoners nationwide.

"It is an outrage that in the 21st-century American prisoners are being starved to death in barbaric conditions by a prison system whose employees enjoy total impunity for their criminal actions," HRDC executive director Paul Wright, himself a former prisoner, said in a news release. (In addition to founding the HRDC, Wright also founded Prison Legal News, a monthly news magazine for and by prisoners, from his jail cell in 1990.) "We hope the civil justice system will help provide the deterrence that is otherwise sadly lacking within Florida’s prison system."

In response, the FDOC told New Times that it had not yet been served the lawsuit and could not comment on the case's specifics but that the department "is committed to ensuring all inmates have access to appropriate health services."

A Corizon spokesperson, Martha Harbin, told New Times via email that the company is confident it handled the case correctly but that Corizon could not speak further without violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, privacy laws.

"Patient privacy laws and the filed complaint prevent us from disclosing specific information from the patient’s medical records that would provide a more complete picture of Mr. Gaines’s health challenges and treatment, but we are confident that appropriate, evidence-based medical care was provided," she said.

But the suit echoes an eerily similar case that also involved the Dade Correctional Institute. In 2012, multiple witnesses said guards at the facility scalded mentally ill inmate Darren Rainey to death in a makeshift prison shower as punishment for defecating in his cell. State officials did not reopen the case until the Miami Herald's Julie Brown wrote a blistering series of articles about it. Even after Brown obtained gruesome images of Rainey's scalded body, the county medical examiner's office and Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle still insisted Rainey did not suffer deadly burns. No one was fired or charged in the case.

Perhaps more importantly, the Herald also spoke to other witnesses who claimed inmates at Dade CI were being starved.

The Palm Beach Post series about Corizon also noted that after prison medical care was privatized and handed over to the company in 2012, inmate deaths spiked. Corizon walked away from its $1.2 billion, five-year state contract after the award-winning Post series but claimed the move was a fiscal decision.

According to the latest suit, judges and other justice-system officials knew in 2013 that Gaines was severely mentally ill. After he pleaded guilty in 2013 to burglary charges, a judge instructed officials to house Gaines near his family in Palm Beach County. At a subsequent mental-health evaluation at the FDOC's South Florida Reception Center (SFRC), officials noted Gaines had repeatedly been "Baker Acted" — committed involuntarily to a mental institution — because of his constant auditory hallucinations. Among other diagnoses, officials stated Gaines had bipolar disorder, mania, had "psychotic features," as well as "borderline intellectual functioning," which the suit says is "historically referred to as 'mental retardation.'" He also struggled to comply with his medication regimen and often refused his medicine.

He was then transferred from the SFRC to Dade CI in Homestead — while there, the suit says, he continued to experience hallucinations and refuse treatment. After a particularly rough period, he was sent back to a crisis unit at the SFRC, where he slept only two to three hours per night and weighed 151 pounds. He was also written up for alleged failure to follow orders and in 2015 was sent more than 300 miles away from his family to the Florida State Prison and then to the Union Correctional Institution. On May 15, the suit says, because of Gaines' "rapidly deteriorating" mental condition, he was placed in a "close management" unit at the facility, where health officials noted in reports that he had "been observed smearing feces on his floor.”

From here, the suit claims, things grew strange. On December 1, Corizon Health officials began to write that Gaines' condition seemed to be improving. Reports from that day say a company social worker observed his "clean and organized" cell and "neat" appearance.

But just two days later, Gaines was dead. Just after noon December 3, officials noted he seemed quiet and had not eaten. They checked on him around 1:26 p.m. and found him unresponsive. After emergency medical technicians administered CPR, he was pronounced dead.

Medical examiners conducted an autopsy the next day. Though writing that his cause of death was "undetermined," examiners wrote that Gaines suffered from "malnutrition" and weighed only 115 pounds. In contrast with the glowing Corizon report three days earlier, doctors said Gaines also died with a "generalized unwashed appearance and probable feces on [the] soles of [his] feet."

"Following Mr. Gaines’ death, Defendants did not timely inform Plaintiff," the suit adds. "As a result, Mr. Gaines was not released to his family; the Decedent was buried by FDOC on FDOC property against the wishes and without the consent of Plaintiff."

Gaines' mother is now suing for alleged violations of the Eight and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibit cruel and unusual punishment and guarantee equal protection for people of all races under the law. The Gaines family also alleges their loved one's treatment violated the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The prison's "conduct was so deliberately indifferent as to Mr. Gaines’ nutritional, medical, and/or mental health needs as to violate his right against cruel and unusual punishment," the suit reads.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.