Saturday, February 17, 2018
Public safety

Pinellas sheriff ousts health official involved in Hillsborough jail death

LARGO — An administrator for one of Florida's largest private prison health care companies has been ousted from a local jail for the second time in two years, after the Pinellas Sheriff's Office learned of his role in events surrounding the death of a Hillsborough County prisoner.

Lewis Hays, formerly chief administrator in Hillsborough for Armor Correctional Health Services Inc., had come under scrutiny in the summer of 2012 as Sheriff David Gee looked into inadequate treatment of the jail inmate, who suffered a stroke that eventually proved fatal.

Among other questionable actions, Hays "offered misleading information as to the existence of the notes" on the inmate's care, Hillsborough officials found. The agency yanked Hays' security clearance, removing his ability to work in the jail.

At some companies, such an episode might not portend a bright future.

At Armor, a major player in Florida's burgeoning business of privatized prison medicine, it was the prelude to Hays' promotion and a new post on the other side of Tampa Bay.

Until last week, Hays was overseeing the company's new contract at the Pinellas County Jail, according to Armor and the Pinellas Sheriff's Office. His new title: regional vice president.

On Friday, after learning of Hays' history in Hillsborough County from the Tampa Bay Times, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told Armor's chief executive officer to remove him from his post in Pinellas.

"I told him to get this guy out of our jail. I don't want him here," Gualtieri said. The investigation in Hillsborough County, Gualtieri said, "raises serious questions about his conduct."

Hays' 2012 removal from the Hillsborough jail was the final indignity in a tragic chain of events that ultimately forced Armor and the sheriff to pay $1 million in wrongful-death claims and subjected the company's employees to an investigation by state regulators.

Armor officials declined to address specific concerns about Hays this week, but said he is not among the employees under investigation by Florida Department of Health regulators because of the Hillsborough jail inmate's death.

"Armor fully cooperated with the (Hillsborough) Sheriff's review, and continues to cooperate with the Department of Health's review of a handful of Armor staff. Mr. Hays is not under review by any agency," company spokeswoman Yeleny Suarez said in a statement.

"Armor will always support its caregivers and support staff in their efforts to fulfill its mission as it is the right thing for our patients, our staff, and our communities," she added.

Hays could not be reached for comment Friday.

Critics say Hays' continued role at Armor exemplifies one of the greatest liabilities of privatized prison health care: the lack of accountability for profit-driven providers of a public service.

"For Armor, this is an employee who helped save them money by delaying or denying medical care, and is trying to protect the company," said Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, a publication that advocates for prisoner rights. "It does not surprise me at all that people who operate in the best interest of the company would be rewarded."

Private prison health care is booming in Florida. One national company, Corizon Inc., is moving ahead with a $1.2 billion deal to assume medical duties at most state prisons.

Miami-based Armor, which operates primarily in Florida's county jails, is paid more than $20 million a year in Hillsborough County. But its operation there also led to one of the industry's more publicized scandals of recent years: the death of Allen Hicks Sr., a youth baseball coach from Tampa.

Hicks, 51, was booked into jail on May 11, 2012. He had been found, babbling and disoriented, in his car on the side of Interstate 275. He was arrested for obstruction when he did not obey commands to get out of the vehicle.

Unable to use his left arm or leg, Hicks was put in a cell without a medical screening. Over the next 36 hours he sprawled on the floor, sometimes trying to crawl using the one working side of his body.

On the night of May 12, after he was found lying in his own urine, Hicks was finally diagnosed with a potential stroke by a nurse and taken to Tampa General Hospital. Doctors there confirmed the stroke diagnosis, but it was too late: Hicks slipped into a coma and died within three months.

The Hillsborough sheriff's review of the incident found that Hays and his assistant engaged in "improper handling of critical medical records" related to the incident, as well as making "conflicting statements about the existence of the records."

Additionally, they "engaged in conduct that appeared to be intended to intimidate and coerce" the nurse who belatedly recognized Hicks' stroke symptoms.

Thea Clark, an attorney for the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, declined to discuss Hays' behavior in greater detail, but said it caused serious dismay in the colonel overseeing the investigation.

"This was a serious incident, a serious investigation, and he wanted cooperation and wasn't getting it," Clark said. "He wasn't happy."

Gualtieri said Armor CEO Bruce Teal did not think the Hillsborough sheriff's review accurately described Hays' behavior.

"He disagrees with their findings and believes that Lewis Hays did not act improperly," Gualtieri said.

Last year, Armor signed a limited contract to provide some medical care, including dentistry and mental health services, to Pinellas County Jail inmates. The deal is expected to bring the company $6.5 million in the next two years.

Gualtieri said he plans to scrutinize the employees Armor assigns to work in Pinellas.

"Obviously, we'll probably take a closer look and more skeptical eye of people that are assigned and any baggage they have," he said.

Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.

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