MIAMI, Fla. — A prisoner’s death is prompting her family to share her story after she died of breast cancer less than two months after her diagnosis.
The Baez family blames a lack of preventative care and treatment for Ana Margarita Baez’s death. They now are pushing for change for other women in Florida prisons, and they say, speaking up for women who are too afraid to.
“Here we are. Somebody that made a big mistake in her life and was paying her debt to society, but it went beyond that,” Astrid Baez, Ana’s sister told the I-Team.
Ana’s life was filled with choices and consequences. A decision to drink and drive took the life of another person and forever altered the course of her own.
She was sentenced to three years in state prison and five years probation after pleading guilty to DUI manslaughter with failure to render aid and leaving the scene of a crash involving death.
“It changed our lives. It changed hers. It changed the other family’s life. It’s something that we definitely always pray for, that they find their own peace and comfort,” Astrid said.
Ana’s release date was scheduled for last May, her family said.
“She had big dreams to reunite with the family,” Astrid said. “And in a matter of months, weeks, days — everything changed.”
Ana died Feb. 3 at 47 years old from breast cancer.
“She never ever got one treatment for cancer,” Astrid told the I-Team, saying Ana never received chemotherapy.
When asked if Ana received a mammogram while she was in prison, Astrid said, “Nope.”
According to the current American Cancer Society recommendations, which the Florida Department of Corrections says it follows, she should have had at least two yearly mammograms.
Since 2015, the American Cancer Society has recommended women ages 45 to 54 receive a yearly mammogram.
But as recently as 2018, the Department of Corrections own guidelines said female inmates would not receive a mammogram until 50 years old unless a clinician decide to order one.
Corrections sent the I-Team an updated copy of its guidelines for “periodic screenings” that went into effect in August — six months after Ana died.
RECOMMENDED: Tampa Bay area doctors urge women to continue breast cancer screenings during pandemic
“She knew something was really bad and she had fear to come forward,” Astrid said. "You have to ask yourself, why. And she said, they’re not gonna care for me. There’s no such thing as healthcare for prisoners.”
Astrid said prisoners who attempted to get treatment for health concerns faced retaliation. According to Astrid, her sister told her, "there was punishment for letting family know, it was punishment for coming forward, they were accused all the time of — you’re faking it.”
It was during her work release in Hollywood, Florida that Ana was hospitalized and officially diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, “an extremely aggressive form of cancer that appears suddenly and progresses in a matter of weeks and months,” according to Ana’s medical records the Baez family shared with the I-Team. Notes in the records warned that not following up on care, including chemo, could lead to death.
Ana was then transferred from Hollywood to the Lowell Prison Annex in Ocala.
Citing privacy concerns, the Florida Department of Corrections would not release information regarding Ana's care or treatment during the time she was incarcerated.
Astrid immediately sent letters to state leaders, including the governor’s office and inspector general, calling the matter life-threatening and urgent, and “begging for her safety.”
It’s call for help State Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, tells the I-Team she hears daily. Hart has made it a point to make unscheduled prison visits across the state and talk with people inside.
“We are responsible for taking care of people, not making them worse. And medically, we are doing that every day,” Hart said.
For women in prison, she said she plans to further question their care.
“I don’t know anybody who’s gotten a routine mammogram in our facilities. I’m glad you mentioned it because that’ll be a question I’m gonna send to the secretary today,” Hart told I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern. “We’ll find out — how often are they getting mammograms? And what’s the number?”
In an email, the Department of Corrections told the I-Team:
“The Florida Department of Corrections is committed to providing for the safety and wellbeing of all inmates in FDC’s custody. Ensuring inmates incarcerated in Florida’s prisons receive all necessary medical treatment in line with evolving national standards is one of FDC’s top priorities and a core constitutional responsibility.”
But in her office, Hart’s filing cabinets are brimming with letters from prisoners and their family members, detailing healthcare concerns. Pulling out one folder, she said, “The family reached out and said — we can’t get any treatment.”
The file includes letters sent from a prisoner at Lowell battling breast cancer and emails from Hart’s staff to the Department of Corrections.
Hart said she pushed the agency to get the women started on chemotherapy.
“You’ll see the letters that I sent up to the Secretary’s Office and they send back and said Rep., they’re doing everything they can. You call everything not giving me any chemo?” Hart said.
The state representative also brought up a culture of fear and retaliation.
“The fear is that if the family continues to fight, that she’ll be retaliated against and she gets out in 2023,” Hart said. “Why are we not doing what it takes for her to live as opposed to her getting home and dying immediately because we have not taken care of her.”
State Senator Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said he knows of many prisoners who have died before they are able to see family.
“There are certain people who are released under conditional medical release. Oftentimes they’re at the end of their life, so they’re largely in the palliative stage of their life. Unfortunately sometimes before the paperwork is done, that person has passed away. And I can’t tell you how many families I’ve spoken to over the last decade where that’s been the case,” Brandes said. “To me, there’s an element of grace to this. We have to provide that element of grace to even those people who are incarcerated.”
An state audit released in January showed that every year, the Commission on Offender Review grants about half of the prisoners referred from the Department of Corrections conditional medical release.
The State of Florida Auditor General recommended the Commission ensure that the conditional medical release referrals are investigated in a timely manner. That doesn’t always happen, the audit found.
“We have to provide them healthcare. We have to provide them a standard of care that is equal to what people would receive on the outside. And at the end of the day — we’re failing in certain areas. We’ve got to do better,” Branded said.
In Ana’s case, the state agreed to reduce her sentence and a judge signed for her immediate release from custody in January.
Before the Baez family could make it to Ocala to pick her up from Lowell the same day the judge signed for her release, Ana was transferred to Memorial Hospital in Jacksonville.
It was there, her family recorded a video of Ana.
“I’m not a human being. We’re all human beings, but we’re basically treated one way if we’re inmates and another way if we’re not inmates,” Ana said.
- Florida prison staff, inmates wait on word for vaccine eligibility
- Florida inmates start to receive COVID-19 vaccine
Within weeks, Ana died at a hospital in Miami. Her son, Vincent Zaragozi, was with her.
“I’m almost certain that had she received care, there would have been a different outcome,” he said. “I feel like I was robbed, you know? There’s just a lot left that I haven’t done in my life that I wish she could see.”
Zaragozi and his family are now focused on helping to spread his mother’s message — fighting for the care of women in prison.
“She spoke to all of us about it, she was very passionate about it,” he said. “Being a voice for all of the other women inside.”
A voice joining lawmakers like Hart.
“I promise with every breath in me until I have no other, I will continue to fight for those who have absolutely no voice,” Hart said.
The I-Team requested an interview with the Department of Corrections to discuss mammograms for women in prison and the Baez family’s concern that Ana did not receive regular mammograms. The agency said it is not able to provide an interview on the issue and said medical records of an inmate are confidential.
This story started with a tip. If you have something you’d like the I-Team to investigate, email Kylie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story is the first in a new ABC Action News series.
The I-Team reveals the factors building to what state leaders call a breaking point in the Florida Department of Corrections. What’s at stake in the state’s largest agency and the third-largest prison system in the country and the impact beyond prison gates.