Former inmate suing Mississippi prisons, accuses officials of allowing suspected cancer to spread without diagnosis, treatment

Published 2:49 am Thursday, February 15, 2024

by Mina Corpuz, Mississippi Today
February 14, 2024

A formerly incarcerated woman facing terminal breast cancer is suing the prison system’s former and current healthcare providers for failing to diagnose and treat the disease until it spread in her body.

Susie Annie Balfour, 62, of Memphis, is the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi that alleges prison medical officials acted with deliberate indifference because they knew for years that she might have cancer, but they did not order a biopsy to confirm until November 2021.

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Over the course of a decade, Balfour had at least eight mammograms at Merit Health Central in Jackson. That number is less than the annual mammograms and later twice a year mammograms outside doctors recommended after each of her visits, according to the lawsuit.

Stage 4 cancer has metastasized and spread to Balfour’s lymph nodes, bones and other parts of her body. She said she’s trying to stay encouraged and do what she can.

“I never know when my time will be up, but until then I’m not going to stop fighting,” said Balfour, who was incarcerated at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility for over 30 years and released on parole in December 2021.

The complaint alleges the contract between the Mississippi Department of Corrections – which is not named as a defendant – and former medical contractors Wexford Health Sources and Centurion of Mississippi and current contractor VitalCore Health Strategies created financial incentive for the companies to withhold necessary and lifesaving care to incarcerated people.

How that manifested was reduced outpatient referrals and hospitalizations and encouragement of conservative care to cut costs, according to the complaint.

“This is just another avenue to draw attention to what’s happening in the prisons,” said Andrew Tominello, who is representing Balfour.

Balfour first asked prison medical staff for a mammogram in June 2011.

After that visit, doctors recommended she return for follow-up annual mammograms to monitor any changes in calcifications found in her right breast. By 2016, doctors recommended she have mammograms every six months.

Instead, Balfour went up to three years between follow-ups, according to the lawsuit.

It wasn’t until Nov. 3, 2021, that a biopsy revealed Balfour had an invasive, malignant cancer in her breast, court documents state.

The lawsuit alleges VitalCore was aware of the doctors’ findings from the November visit and did not inform Balfour about the cancer until days before her release on Dec. 27, 2021.

Less than a week after leaving prison, Balfour went to the University of Mississippi Medical Center where she had another mammogram and full testing, which the doctor used to diagnose her cancer as Stage 4.

Balfour wonders if actions had been taken sooner, maybe things would have turned out differently with her health.

On behalf of its provider VitalCore, MDOC declined to comment. Representatives from Centurion and Wexford did not respond to a request for comment. 

Other defendants named in the lawsuit are Merit Health Central and multiple physicians and nurses employed by the hospital and prison health care providers. The lawsuit accuses them of malpractice for failing to properly diagnose and treat Balfour, causing her cancer to progress.

A spokesperson for Merit Health declined to comment. Defendants will have 21 days to respond to the lawsuit complaint.

The lawsuit also alleges Balfour and other incarcerated people were required to clean the prison with chemicals such as glyphosate that are known to cause cancer. They were not given protective equipment when mixing raw chemicals to avoid exposure, according to the complaint.

To date, at least 15 other people incarcerated at CMCF have cancer, and they are not receiving “necessary, life-saving treatment,” according to the lawsuit.

READ: SMCI inmate, fearing he has cancer, still awaiting needed medical procedure, he says

“These are human beings that deserve a second chance in life. Instead they’re being allowed to get sick and left to die,” Pauline Rogers, co-founder of the RECH Foundation that helps women returning from prison, said in a statement.

Balfour is seeking compensatory and punitive damages to be determined at trial.

Centurion became MDOC’s inmate health care provider in 2016 after a multi-year bribery scandal that led to the 2014 indictment of then-MDOC commissioner Christopher Epps and prison contractors including Wexford. VitalCore Health Strategies became the provider in 2020.

In a separate lawsuit, VitalCore is being sued for failing to provide adequate medical and mental health care to incarcerated people and proper accommodations and services to those with disabilities.

Balfour was incarcerated for a capital murder conviction in the shooting death of a Southaven police officer that carried a death sentence that was overturned in 1991. She was resentenced to serve 30 years, according to court records.

“I just want everybody to be held accountable,” she said. “ … and I just want justice for myself and other ladies and men in there who are dealing with the same situation I am dealing with.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.