Inmates at Mississippi prison were exposed to dangerous chemicals, denied health care, lawsuit says

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JACKSON, Miss. — Inmates at a Mississippi prison were forced to mix raw cleaning chemicals without protective equipment, with one alleging she later contracted terminal cancer and was denied timely medical care, a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges.

Susan Balfour, 62, was incarcerated for 33 years at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility until her release in December 2021. Prisoners were required to clean the facility, without protective equipment, using chemicals that might cause cancer, Balfour’s lawsuit says.

Balfour contracted terminal breast cancer, a condition that prison health care providers failed to identify years ago because they could save money by not performing necessary medical screenings and treatment, the lawsuit filed in the U.S. Southern District of Mississippi contends.

“I feel betrayed by our system that failed to provide timely medical care for me. I feel hopeless, I feel angry, I feel bitterness. I feel shock and disbelief of this going on with me at a time when I’m getting ready to get out (of prison),’ Balfour said in an interview Tuesday. ”It is too much to take in, that this is happening to me.”

The companies contracted to provide health care to prisoners at the facility — Wexford Health Sources, Centurion Health and VitalCore — delayed or failed to schedule follow-up cancer screenings for Baflour even though they had been recommended by prison physicians, the lawsuit says.

All three companies did not immediately respond to emails and phone messages seeking comment. A spokesperson for the Mississippi Department of Corrections said the agency would not comment on active litigation.

The lawsuit, which seeks compensatory damages in an amount to be determined at a trial, says at least 15 other unidentified people incarcerated at the prison have cancer and are not receiving life-saving care.

One of Balfour’s lawyers, Drew Tominello, said in an interview that her attorneys had not established with certainty that exposure to the chemicals caused Balfour’s cancer. But the lawsuit focuses on what they say were substantial delays and denial of medical treatment that could have detected her cancer earlier.

Incentives in the companies’ contracts with the state Department of Corrections encouraged cost-cutting by reducing outpatient referrals and interfering with physicians’ independent clinical judgments, the lawsuit alleges.

Balfour was initially convicted of murdering a police officer and sentenced to death, but that conviction was later reversed in 1992 after the Mississippi Supreme Court found her constitutional rights had been violated during her trial. She later reached a plea agreement on a lesser charge, Tominello said.

Balfour’s attorneys say her cancer may have been detectable over a decade ago. After she was released in 2021, an outpatient doctor performed a mammogram that showed she had stage four breast cancer, the suit says.

Pauline Rogers, Co-Founder of the Rech Foundation, an organization that assists formerly incarcerated people, called the alleged prison cleaning protocols “a clear violation of basic human rights.”

“These are human beings that deserve a second chance in life,” Rogers said. “Instead, these companies are withholding care to make a profit off the women they’re leaving to get sick and die.”

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Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him at @mikergoldberg.

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