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Lawsuit alleges MDOC medical...

Lawsuit alleges MDOC medical contractors denied access to care, leading to terminal cancer diagnoses

By: Jeremy Pittari - February 21, 2024

Susie Balfour describes to a crowd of media how she was exposed to chemicals while serving time in a Mississippi prison that allegedly caused her to develop cancer and denied treatment for that cancer. (Photo by Jeremy Pittari | Magnolia Tribune)

  • The plaintiff claims her cancer developed due to exposure to chemicals while in prison.

Last week, a lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi claiming inmates in the care of the Mississippi Department of Corrections were forced to use chemicals, without protection, leading to their development of cancer.

Additionally, the suit alleges that those who developed cancer where not only left in the dark about their diagnosis but were denied proper treatment for financial gain.

After filing the suit on Valentine’s Day, attorneys for the families of the victims and the named plaintiff in the suit, Susie Balfour, held a press conference on the steps of the United States Courthouse in Jackson. There, Balfour described how she was affected by the chemicals and denied life saving medical care while incarcerated. 

Balfour stated during the press conference that she, like many other women in the prison’s cleaning detail, was encouraged to take the cleaning detail job, where she was given degreasers, germicides and weed killer.

“We were encouraged to take this job and so I did,” Balfour added.

Balfour, now 62, said that her path to incarceration started with her father’s death when she was 15 years old. The trauma of that loss led her to develop an addiction and later resulted in her imprisonment for 33 1/2 years, most of which was served under the care of MDOC in central Mississippi. 

“Life in prison is a life spent fighting to preserve your dignity and personal freedom,” Balfour described. 

She recounted her prison living conditions as being hot and cramped with poor ventilation. 

In 2011, she had a mammogram. The findings of that test led her doctor to suggest she have a follow-up in a year. Despite that recommendation and her constant complaints of pain due to lumps in her breasts, she did not get another mammogram until 2013. 

“These types of delays continued for years, and I was never told what my diagnosis was until just a few days before I was released from prison in 2021,” Balfour elaborated. “That’s when they told me I had Stage 2 cancer.”

Balfour said her lack of insurance, knowledge and resources left her lost until she found a doctor who offered to treat her even without insurance or access to other payment methods. 

“Dr. Berry looked at my past mammograms and said the carcinoma had been present the entire time. I just hadn’t been told. He performed another mammogram and found the cancer had spread throughout my bones and organs and it was actually Stage 4 cancer,” Balfour said emotionally. 

Because the cancer was allowed to spread through her body it developed to a point beyond medical intervention. 

“Today my cancer is terminal. I was not able to be my own advocate because I was not told what was wrong with me,” Balfour said.

At the time she was unaware the jail’s medical providers were financially motivated to deny treatment, as she alleges. Now she is concerned there are still people in the prison system who are just as unaware. 

“Even when you are locked up and stripped of your rights, you should have the right to know what is happening inside of your body. I was denied that,” Balfour stated.

While the names of the exact chemicals used by the cleaning crews are still under investigation, the lawsuit alleges a chemical used in a popular weed killer brand, Round Up, was one of them.

“A chemical known to cause cancer. Susie would use these chemicals up to three times a day to clean the prison, also without any protective equipment,” Pauline Rogers described.

Rogers is the co-founder of the Reech Foundation and Executive Director of the Wendy Hatcher Transitional Home for Women. Her work with current and former inmates and personal experiences led to her involvement in this case. 

“In fact, the women were told that if they tried to make their own protective equipment they would be disciplined,” Rogers claimed. “This is unsafe and inhumane, but they did it to these women anyway.”

While the lawsuit lists Balfour as the sole plaintiff, Andrew Tominello, an attorney on Balfour’s legal team, said, so far, 15 other current or former inmates have been found to have cancer, allegedly because they, too, were exposed to the chemicals while in the Mississippi prison system.

Joseph Wilson, one of Balfour’s attorneys, alleges the third-party companies overseeing the medical care of inmates where financially driven to deny care.

“This lawsuit describes how these MDOC contractors, these for-profit companies, who ultimately bore the responsibility of providing healthcare to these incarcerated human beings, were financially incentivized to withhold necessary medical care and in some instances lifesaving medical care,” Wilson stated. “In Ms. Balfour’s case, her cancer diagnosis was withheld from her for 10 years. A decade. Allowing this disease to progress from a Stage 1 treatable prognosis, all the way to a Stage 4 terminal prognosis.”

Contractors listed in the lawsuit include Wexford Health Sources Inc., Centurion of Mississippi LLC, and Vitalcore Health Strategies. Those companies and several John and Jane Does representing the doctors and nurses who are alleged to have played a part in the lack of quality medical care are listed as defendants in the suit. Wexford was sued in Illinois for essentially the same thing, Tominello said. MDOC is not formally named in the suit because the 11th Amendment protects the state, so the court documents focus on the third-party contractors involved, said Tominello.

“For example, Centurian of Mississippi receives compensation from MDOC on a per diem basis based on the number of incarcerated people in the system. And MDOC is allowed to recoup a deduction of their money from Centurian in the event that Centurian had to outsource care to a specialist or prescribe non formulary drugs. In other words, under these terms, these policies, these contracted medical providers were encouraged not to give these incarcerated human beings the necessary medical care that they needed because ultimately it would cut into their profits,” Wilson claimed. “Said more plainly, these companies made more money by delaying and denying necessary medical attention to folk just like Susie Balfour, which led to her getting cancer and it going untreated.”

Balfour’s story was not the only one shared during the press conference. Rogers’ nephew, Percy Carter, allegedly developed lead poisoning while serving time in a Mississippi jail. 

“He was let out of prison with his eye protruding from out his head, leading to the eventual removal of one of his eyes,” Rogers described tearfully.

She went on to describe the plights of others who were allegedly denied medical access, or continue to be, while in prison. Most of those victims had family members present on the Courthouse steps, holding posters with the names of their loved ones who have been affected. Some posters contained graphic images, such as a photo of Percy Carter’s engorged eye before it was medically removed. 

(Photo: Jeremy Pittari | Magnolia Tribune)

“At this exact moment there are multiple people across multiple prison facilities in Mississippi who are battling various diseases,” Rogers said.

Magnolia Tribune sought comment from the Mississippi Department of Corrections and the Attorney General’s office regarding the lawsuit and the claims asserted by the plaintiff. Kate Head, Government Relations for MDOC, said the department does not comment on pending litigation. A comment from the Attorney General’s office was not received by press time.

About the Author(s)
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Jeremy Pittari

Jeremy Pittari is a lifelong resident of the Gulf Coast. Born and raised in Slidell, La., he moved to South Mississippi in the early 90s. Jeremy earned an associate in arts from Pearl River Community College and went on to attend the University of Southern Mississippi, where he earned a bachelor's of arts in journalism. A week after Hurricane Katrina, he started an internship as a reporter with the community newspaper in Pearl River County. After graduation, he accepted a full-time position at that news outlet where he covered the recovery process post Katrina in Pearl River and Hancock Counties. For nearly 17 years he wrote about local government, education, law enforcement, crime, business and a variety of other topics. Email Jeremy: