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.


Man found dead in flaming mobile home

TAMPA — Firefighters found a man dead inside a burned-down mobile home Saturday.Tampa Fire Rescue got a call just after 4:30 p.m. that a single-wide mobile home at the 100 block of East Linebaugh Avenue was in flames.The man’s identity was not releas...
Updated: 1 hour ago
‘I’m going to watch you bleed’: Nikolas Cruz threatened ex’s new boyfriend, report says

‘I’m going to watch you bleed’: Nikolas Cruz threatened ex’s new boyfriend, report says

Warning: This story quotes graphic material.Before he killed 17 people at a South Florida high school, Nikolas Cruz repeatedly threatened an ex-classmate who had started dating his former girlfriend, according to a report in Buzzfeed News."I’m going ...
Updated: 2 hours ago

Police find dead man in Tampa apartment

TAMPA — Police found a dead man inside an apartment in the 5200 block of Sonora Court Friday after 3 p.m.Who the man is or how long he’s been dead is not yet clear, police said. The victim appears to have been killed in some sort of "homicidal violen...
Updated: 2 hours ago

Police up patrols at two Pinellas Park schools after Snapchat threat

PINELLAS PARK — Police said they will have a heightened presence at two Pinellas Park schools after a school shooting threat was shared on social media.A post Friday on social media app Snapchat threatened a possible school shooting Tuesday, accordin...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Prosecutor: Death penalty was ‘designed’ for cases like Florida school shooting

Prosecutor: Death penalty was ‘designed’ for cases like Florida school shooting

The 17 counts of premeditated murder against Nikolas Cruz are the type of case "the death penalty was designed for," according to the Florida prosecutor in charge of trying the confessed school shooter.But Michael Satz, the longtime Broward state att...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Florida, angry and grieving, takes gun protest to streets

Florida, angry and grieving, takes gun protest to streets

PARKLAND, Fla. — Thousands of angry students, parents and residents demanded stricter gun control laws Saturday as new details were revealed about the suspect accused of shooting and killed 17 people in a Florida high school. The rally, held in downt...
Updated: 3 hours ago

Woman hit, killed Friday along Memorial Highway

TOWN ’N COUNTRY — A woman died after she was hit by a minivan along Memorial Highway on Friday night, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.The 53-year-old woman, whose identity was not released, was trying to cross Memorial Highway f...
Updated: 4 hours ago
White nationalist appears to disavow connection with shooter

White nationalist appears to disavow connection with shooter

PARKLAND, Fla. — A white nationalist appears to have lied to The Associated Press and other news organizations when he claimed that Florida school-shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz was a member of his obscure group.Law enforcement officials have said the...
Updated: 5 hours ago
How killer’s path through a school left 17 dead in six short minutes of terror

How killer’s path through a school left 17 dead in six short minutes of terror

It was Valentine’s Day across America.At an all-American high school in a green and placid Broward County suburb strung with waterways and golf-course communities, that innocent fact would take on dreadful significance well before the day was out.Bet...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Two students wounded by gunfire outside Tampa’s Middleton High campus

Two students wounded by gunfire outside Tampa’s Middleton High campus

TAMPA — With a nation in jitters over a South Florida school massacre, gunfire erupted a block from Tampa’s Middleton High School on Friday, prompting a reaction that had some students hiding behind locked doors.Two senior girls, ages 17 and 18, were...
Published: 02/16/18