After years of public outcry over the death rate inside Baton Rouge prison, parish city officials have recommended a new private company to provide medical care for inmates, marking the latest development of a long-standing campaign to improve the system and save lives.
Officials confirmed Friday that an evaluation committee had recommended that Oklahoma City-based Turn Key Health Clinics replace the current provider, CorrectHealth.
The East Baton Rouge metro council is expected to vote next week to approve the proposed $ 6 million annual contract.
For a vocal group of inmate rights advocates, saying goodbye to CorrectHealth would be a major cause for celebration in Baton Rouge – something they started demanding years ago, after finding out that the death rate at the interior of East Baton Rouge Parish Prison was more than double the national average. for pre-trial detention centers.
“It is a day to remember,” said Reverend Alexis Anderson of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition. “While we obviously do our due diligence on this new company, given how deadly CorrectHealth’s reign has been, I’m thrilled to get them out of there.”
As recently as last week, a Baton Rouge prisoner was found unconscious and later pronounced dead, officials recently confirmed. Travis Okeke, 36, was convicted of simple assault and inappropriate telephone communications in May. His cause of death is unknown pending a toxicological examination, according to a spokesperson for the coroner.
In December 2020, as officials were drafting the new contract, a man died of hypothermia inside his cell and a CorrectHealth nurse was fired from her job in response. Hours before her death, the nurse concluded that Marcus Morris, 61, suffered from mental health issues and did not need urgent medical attention. The coroner ruled that his mode of death was natural.
“We need serious responsibility”
Lawyers and attorneys fear Turn Key has some of the same issues as CorrectHealth – in part because its own baggage includes a $ 12.5 million settlement against Garfield County, Oklahoma, in 2019 because a man died behind bars after spending more than 55 hours strapped to a restraint chair. .
Turn Key was providing medical care at that prison, and the lawsuit alleged that correctional officials and medical staff had failed to intervene.
In addition to the civil lawsuit, a grand jury indicted six people – including the sheriff, the prison administrator and two prison nurses – on criminal charges of second degree manslaughter. Three ended up pleading guilty and received almost no jail time. The charges against the other defendants, including the nurses, were dismissed.
One of the nurses said Turn Key had not trained her on how to handle inmates in restraint chairs, according to The Enid News & Eagle coverage.
The company ultimately paid a tiny fraction of the overall settlement amount, Turn Key general counsel Danny Honeycutt said on Friday. “I will not try to revive the case, but I will say that there were several entities involved in this situation, and some were found to be more culpable than others,” he said.
No recent case of prisoner deaths in Baton Rouge has resulted in settlements of nearly $ 12.5 million or criminal charges against prison staff.
Despite some concerns, defenders said they anticipate the new contract will include valuable reporting requirements and allow tighter oversight.
“Private companies have profit as their motive, nothing else,” Anderson said. “We have to tackle this, but until we get there, we need serious accountability.”
Baton Rouge officials solicited proposals for a new contract last year, but the pandemic has delayed the process.
Georgia-based CorrectHealth also submitted an offer. Officials said the Turnkey proposal was superior: it includes four additional mental health workers, better pay and benefits for employees, a team of floating nurses to minimize vacancies and the use of monitors. aimed at minimizing suicides, among other changes. Five other companies also submitted proposals, according to records.
Turn Key Health contracts with correctional facilities in several states, including Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, and Texas in addition to Oklahoma.
“We are thrilled to become a part of the Baton Rouge community, to step in and get down to business,” said Honeycutt.
The company was founded in 2009 by two Oklahoma attorneys: Jesse White and State Representative Jon Echols, the current president of the company. Republican from Oklahoma City, Echols was elected to the state House of Representatives almost ten years ago.
His official biography calls him “an entrepreneur with a heart for small business”. He also practices law and teaches law at the University of Oklahoma City. He’s been under review in recent years for political donations to Oklahoma sheriffs in counties that contract with Turn Key.
A long time to come
The quality of health care provided to parish prison inmates deteriorated almost a decade ago when the then governor. Bobby Jindal began privatizing the public charitable hospital system, which had previously absorbed most of the medical needs of prisoners in Baton Rouge.
After prison officials could no longer transport inmates to local hospitals for most medical needs, the parish emergency medical services office began providing care inside the prison. But that program was grappling with serious staff shortages, funding issues and other issues.
Rather than raising the price, Metro Council members searched for a solution some suspected was too good to be true: privatize the system and contract with CorrectHealth for about the same cost.
They signed the annual $ 5.3 million contract in 2016 following private negotiations with CorrectHealth – without soliciting proposals from different companies. This was after an independent consultant recommended roughly doubling the prison’s medical budget to $ 10 million.
So when Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome decided to address long-standing concerns about the prison death rate in early 2020, she announced a full RFP process that would result in a longer contract. solid.
However, the installation itself remains dilapidated and deteriorating. East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux regularly bemoans the conditions in which prisoners are held, but proposals to fund a new detention center have repeatedly failed and years have passed since local authorities took action. seriously considered the issue.
The new contract was designed to increase continuity of care for inmates upon release, which could include referrals to local medical providers, with particular emphasis on mental health and addiction treatment, said officials said. responsible. One of the new positions focuses on providing release plans when people leave prison.
Officials said the ultimate goal is to reduce recidivism, which means fewer people go through the criminal justice system because of untreated mental illness or addiction.
Critics say that while severing ties with CorrectHealth and increasing accountability are positive steps, the whole system is loaded.
“The problem with privatized health care is that these people are primarily driven by profit, not health outcomes,” said David Utter, a lawyer for the Claiborne law firm in Savannah who regularly represents prisoners in East Baton Rouge. and their families. “This stems from a bad political decision taken years ago by city officials to privatize the prison’s medical program.”
The metropolitan council will consider at its meeting on Tuesday whether to approve the proposed contract with Turn Key. The contract would run for four years, with the possibility of extension twice, for two years each.