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Medical, Mental Health Care Lacking at Florida Jail Despite 43 Years of Court Oversight

by David M. Reutter

Despite oversight by a federal court since 1976, the Broward County Jail (BCJ) in Florida does not provide adequate medical or mental health treatment to prisoners. Since 2018, at least ten detainees have died while in the jail’s custody.

BCJ reached a new settlement agreement in August 2018 to address what Dr. Kathryn Burns found to be a “dangerously substandard system” for mental health care. She made nine visits to BCJ in 2016 and 2017 to monitor the facility. [See: PLN, Aug. 2019, p.28]

Part of the move to upgrade care at the jail was switching private medical contractors. Armor Correctional Health Services had provided medical and mental health treatment at BCJ since 2004, but lost the contract to Correct Care Solutions (now known as Wellpath) in June 2018. Wellpath submitted its litigation history as part of its contract bid, but the Broward County Sheriff’s Office refused to release it pursuant to a public records request, citing an exemption under state law for “trade secrets.”

Unsurprisingly, there has been little change with the new for-profit medical provider.

“Recognizing that ten people have died in jail since 2018 and within a week we see two middle aged gentlemen die in the care and custody of the jail, it raised concerns,” said Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes, who wrote a letter to Sheriff Gregory Tony that said the two recent deaths “should sound the alarm.”

The June 2019 deaths of prisoners Craig Fahner, 41, and Joseph St. Fleur, 47, due to unknown medical causes, occurred shortly after a mentally ill prisoner cut off his penis and flushed it down the toilet while in segregation, and after a detainee gave birth in her cell.

“You’re talking about someone self-mutilating, you’re taking about someone being forced to deliver a baby without any care, and you’re talking about two deaths in a very short period of time. That’s troubling,” said Weekes.

BCJ officials dealt with mentally ill detainee Tammy Jackson by placing her in an isolation cell. Jackson, 34, was clearly pregnant; early in the morning on April 10, 2019, she began complaining to guards that she was having contractions. More than four hours later the guards spoke with the on-call doctor, who said “he would check when he arrived.” After he clocked in around 10 a.m., he learned that Jackson had already given birth alone in her cell.

“It is unconscionable that any woman, particularly a mentally ill woman, would be abandoned in her cell to deliver her own baby,” said Broward County public defender Howard Finkelstien. “Not only was Ms. Jackson’s health callously ignored, the life of her child was also put at grave risk.” He noted the baby was born at term and was not premature. Two Wellpath employees were reportedly fired.

Prior to that incident, in September 2018 a 32-year-old prisoner who was housed in an isolation cell beat on his door and told a responding guard, “I have a real medical emergency. I just cut my penis off and flushed it down the toilet. I have no need for it anymore.” The detainee had been in isolation for five months before he committed the act of self-mutilation using a blade from a safety razor.

“I think any human being can imagine, you know, how disturbed you’d have to be to cut off any one of your body parts and flush them down the toilet,” said attorney Greg Lauer.

As for the two deaths in June 2019, BCJ officials said in a statement that one of the prisoners “had more than 20 mental health visits by mental health professionals,” and had “received approximately 30 routine and non-routine interactions with nursing staff and medical providers.”

“It’s not about the simply providing care, it’s about quality of care,” noted Lauer, who has represented the estates of five prisoners who died at BCJ. In regard to the new settlement agreement in federal court, he said, “I think this is going to get resolved, and I think it’s going to get better eventually for these inmates. It’s a slow process and you have to drag them [jail officials] kicking and screaming to get there.”

But after 43 years of litigation the Broward County Jail still is not there, and prisoners continue to die and suffer from inadequate medical and mental health care as a result. 



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