Ulysses Cabrera was in the process of having his eye condition diagnosed when he was sent to Federal Detention Center Miami (FDC Miami) in October 2020 to await trial for allegedly leading a drug trafficking gang based in Little Havana.
Doctors at the University of Miami’s Bascom Palmer Eye Institute believed Cabrera had a condition called ptosis, which causes the upper eyelid (or eyelids) to droop. But further tests were needed to confirm the diagnosis and suggest a treatment plan.
Then he found himself in pre-trial detention.
More than 18 months later, Cabrera’s pleas to prison officials to see a neurologist for his worsening condition have been ignored, according to his lawyer, Paul Petruzzi. The once muscular 32-year-old is rapidly declining, says Petruzzi, and is now in a wheelchair, suffers from facial paralysis and is going blind in both eyes.
“At this point, he deteriorated so quickly,” Cabrera’s girlfriend said in a tearful phone call. She asked that new times withhold his name for fear of reprisals. “We are afraid of two things: it could be the end of his life, or it could leave permanent damage to all his nerves.”
“An officer was in so much pain that she was telling our administration to ask the National Guard for help.”
FDC Miami staff say inmates at the facility lack basic medical care due to a severe staffing shortage: some staff estimate that 30-50 percent of FDC Miami medical positions are currently vacant. Mary Melek, chief steward of the local union that covers FDC Miami employees, says the prison is understaffed in almost every department, especially among case managers, corrections officers and professionals. of health.
“From what I’ve observed, our medical teams are so understaffed that these inmates are being neglected. Doctors have to prioritize who they see because they are understaffed,” Melek said. new times, adding that she reported several instances where an inmate’s medical needs were ignored.
Multiple factors have led to the staffing shortage, Melek says — from the pandemic to the Trump-era federal hiring freeze to the rising cost of living in Miami. She says these factors have created a dangerous and untenable situation for inmates and staff.
“An officer was in so much pain that she was telling our administration to ask the National Guard for help,” Melek said. “Correctional officers are so exhausted that they don’t care about overtime pay because the work is exhausting them.”
In an email response to new timesU.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) spokesman Benjamin O’Cone said the BOP is looking to address its staffing issues.
“Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, we have managed our staffing levels to maintain the safety and security of our staff and inmates, while providing inmates with appropriate opportunities to enhance their successful reintegration into the community upon release. “, writes O’Cone. “We are actively seeking to fill vacancies.”
According to Melek, detainees who seek medical attention sometimes go days and weeks without seeking treatment because there are not enough medical personnel to see them or case managers to carry out checks.
Case managers are responsible for assessing and managing inmates from their arrival at the prison until the day of their transfer or release. They ensure that an inmate’s needs are met and enroll inmates in programs, such as job training and education, to help them reintegrate into civilian life when released. But case managers, who once supervised about 150 inmates before the pandemic, now have to monitor 200 to 350 inmates. Because it can take days or weeks for an inmate to meet with a case manager, inmates find themselves missing crucial registration deadlines through no fault of their own.
“In corrections, we’re supposed to ‘fix’ people by helping them and giving them programs,” Melek said. “But if we can’t register inmates quickly enough, it increases recidivism and hurts their chances of succeeding on release.”
In some cases, she explains, inmates are left in solitary confinement longer than they should, or they miss transfer dates out of prison because their case managers are so overwhelmed. Last month, an FDC Miami staff member filed a civil rights complaint with the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the US Department of Justice, alleging serious civil rights violations, with detainees even being deprived of their basic needs due to the personnel crisis.
“Diabetic, hypertensive, cardiomyopathic and HIV-positive inmates are not receiving their medications. It has been reported that more than 750 prescriptions have not been filled,” reads the complaint, which was obtained by new times. “In addition, toilets, several showers are inoperative, hot water does not work in some areas of the prison, no toilet paper or bar soap, bedding, towels, shower slides, masks for protect exposures to COVID, etc.”
The OIG responded to the complaint, stating that it could not initiate an investigation and recommending that the employee refile the complaint with the Bureau of Prisons Department of Internal Affairs.
O’Cone disputes Melek’s claims of a staffing crisis and inadequate medical care.
“BOP inmates, including FDC Miami, have daily and regular access to medical care. The BOP provides essential medical, dental, and mental health services in a manner consistent with accepted community standards for a correctional environment,” writes the BOP spokesperson. “Each inmate is treated independently on a case-by-case basis, and treatment is provided as clinically indicated, including referral to specialists in the local community. Appointments with specialists in the community are subject to the same availability of schedule as that granted to members of the Public.
Emery Nelson, another BOP spokesperson, declined to comment on Cabrera’s case for new timesciting “privacy, safety and security reasons”.
“The BOP does not discuss information about an inmate’s conditions of confinement, including medical care or health status,” Nelson wrote in an emailed statement.
Some inmates turn to illicit drugs for treatment.
But according to medical records attached to an emergency request for Cabrera to receive outside medical treatment, he has sought medical treatment at least five times since October 2021 for his worsening eye condition.
On October 26, 2021, Cabrera wrote to medical staff that he had been suffering from a droopy eye since his incarceration in 2020 and his vision was deteriorating. “I have already written to you for a while [sic] I went back to see a doctor and have not been seen yet,” Cabrera wrote. “Please have a doctor see me ASAP and thank you.”
In a brief message from November 1, 2021, he wrote: “my eyes hurt”.
Another request, sent November 9, 2021, reads: “I have asked to be seen and have yet to be seen. Please and thank you.”
On November 23, he wrote that he felt “exhausted from reaching out to almost every department… I would really like to be seen by someone as I am very worried about my health and my life… Please and thank you.”
In Petruzzi’s Jan. 24 emergency motion for outside medical care, the attorney said Cabrera’s condition deteriorated to the point that it interfered with his ability to communicate with his attorney – a violation of Sixth Amendment – and had created a “serious personal health risk.”
“Mr. Cabrera’s speech is garbled, his left eyelid and face are droopy, and he has weakness in his arms and legs,” the motion reads. “The Bureau of Prisons has not yet provided medical treatment to Mr. Cabrera, either because it cannot or because it will not.”
Uncertified officers do not have the necessary training to deal with high security inmates in a hospital setting.
Mary Melek, the local shop steward, says tensions at FDC Miami are on the rise as a lack of basic care leads some inmates to turn to illicit drugs to treat themselves.
“If you don’t get treatment, you will become violent towards the staff,” says Melek.
And it’s not just medical staff who are overwhelmed, says Eric Speirs, president of the FDC Miami Prison Workers’ Union. Speirs tells new times the staffing shortage extends to correctional officers and transportation staff. It has become so serious, he says, that prison officers who do not have Basic Prison Transport (BPT) certification have been ordered to escort inmates on hospital trips – a violation of prison politics. This can be dangerous for staff and the general public in some cases, Speirs says, because uncertified officers lack the necessary training to deal with high-security inmates in hospital settings.
“I’m worried and afraid that my bargaining unit members will be put in a situation where they go out there without proper training,” adds Speirs. “If anything happens, the agency will let them dry. It’s beyond the badge to do so, for the safety of Miami-Dade County.”
The FDC Miami Workers Union filed a complaint regarding uncertified hospital transports.
In a letter responding to the grievance obtained by new times, FDC Miami Warden EK Carlton admitted the BPT’s roster of staff was depleted and the administration needed to move staff to cover the staffing emergency.
“Research on this issue determined due to a shortage of qualified BPT staff, many employees on annual leave and the number of inmates at the outside hospital during the holiday season created a difficult task to provide adequate coverage “Carlton wrote.
O’Cone tells new times that all personnel are similarly trained in law enforcement duties.
In late April, Cabrera and two other suspected leaders of a Little Havana drug smuggling gang were convicted of federal firearms, drug and money laundering charges.
As Cabrera awaits his sentencing, scheduled for August, his girlfriend worries about the state he will be in by then. If you ask him, there’s more to neglect than understaffing.
“I don’t believe the lack of staff is the reason for this medical negligence,” Cabrera’s girlfriend said. “I just believe prisons don’t care about an inmate’s human rights.”