AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Ex-inmate with cancer also battling for medical records

No one listened to Sherri Cavender's pleas when she suffered for months from rectal bleeding while an inmate at Pulaski State Prison. Now, her requests for her medical records have apparently fallen on deaf ears at the Department of Corrections.

Shortly after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first spoke to Cavender about her experience as an inmate who dealt with serious health issues, she wrote to the DOC seeking her records.

That was more than two months ago, and, even though the law says those records should already be in Cavender’s hands, she has yet to receive them.

A chronology:

On Aug. 3, Cavender sent an email to the DOC legal department specifically asking for her medical records for January 2011 through February 2013. The time frame is crucial, because, according to Cavender, that's when she was denied a colonoscopy by Pulaski's former medical director, Dr. Yvon Nazaire, even though she was experiencing severe abdominal pain and heavy rectal bleeding.

Less than an hour after Cavender sent that email, she  got a response from Jamie Vallee, a DOC paralegal. Vallee asked that Cavender send a copy of her ID along with a written request. Vallee also cited the cost:  97 cents per page for the first 20 pages, 83 cents for the next 80 and 66 cents for all pages thereafter.

Ten days later, Cavender sent Vallee an email  with  copies of her driver’s license, front and back, along with a request that she receive records only for calendar year 2012.

“If you need anything, please let me know,” Cavender wrote.

And since then?

"Nothing," Cavender said Monday.

By leaving Cavender hanging, the DOC appears to be at risk of violating both state and federal law.

Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, commonly known as HIPAA, correctional systems that offer medical care are among the providers that must furnish patients with copies of  their medical records within 30 days. Breaking the law can bring expensive penalties: The federal government imposed a $1.3 million fine against one health care organization that failed to provide medical records to 41 patients within 30 days.

In Georgia, state law also includes a 30-day deadline for providing patients with their medical records. The only thing apparently allowing a provider to withhold the records is if a  patient can’t provide  “a signed written authorization” showing  that he or she is entitled to them.

For Cavender, 49, the quest for her medical records is another level of frustration as she battles cancer that has spread from her colon to her liver.

“Just par for the course,” she said.

Read and hear the stories of Cavender and two other former Pulaski inmates whose cancer wasn’t diagnosed while they were in Nazaire’s care at Georgia’s second largest prison for women.

Update: About two hours after this blog post appeared online, Cavender received the following email:

Ms. Cavender,

After searching the department’s records, we have been unable to locate your medical file. We are continuing to search for the records and will provide the records to you at no cost should we locate them.

Best regards,


Erin Wright

Assistant Counsel

Georgia Department of Corrections

Office of Legal Services

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About the Author

Danny Robbins in an investigative reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.