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Duval jail kept medical provider despite lawsuits and deaths

 The Duval County jail.
Andrew Pantazi
The Tributary
Jacksonville leaders twice signed contracts with Armor Correctional Health Services,, allowing it to run the Duval County jail’s health care for the past six years.

Jacksonville leaders signed two contracts with Armor Correctional Health Services despite 570 lawsuits and inmate deaths across the country.

Despite hundreds of lawsuits against Armor Correctional Health Services, millions of dollars worth of settlements and dead inmates across the country, Jacksonville leaders signed contracts twice with the company, allowing it to run the Duval County jail’s health care for the last six years.

Lawsuits, deaths and other problems with Armor were publicized by media across the country prior to Jacksonville finalizing either of its contracts with the for-profit company.

For the past four months, every city official connected to the approval of the contract has failed to answer questions about the jail outsourcing its medical care when contacted by phone, email or text.

That includes former Sheriff Mike Williams (who approved the first contract with Armor), former interim Sheriff Pat Ivey (who approved the second contract), current Sheriff T.K. Waters (who cited potential litigation, even though he commented to a Jacksonville television station), former Jacksonville Jaguars player Tony Boselli (who represented Armor as a lobbyist) and every City Council member.

Armor Correctional has been sued in federal court about 570 times since the company’s founding in 2004, according to federal court records and the company’s log. The lawsuits include accusations of medical malpractice, wrongful deaths and employment issues.

At least 43 lawsuits were settled before 2018, according to its bidding documents in another Florida county. The Tributary found settlements ranging from $300,000 to $7.8 million. Fourteen settlements involved Florida jails.

The company will likely be sued by the surviving family of Dexter Barry, a heart transplant recipient who died in November after he didn’t get his anti-rejection medications while in the Duval County Jail for two days.

“For a $98 million contract, why did the sheriff’s office or city not want to put it out for a competitive bid?” asked attorney Andrew Bonderud, who represents Barry’s family. “What did the Sheriff’s Office do to vet them? I think the Sheriff’s Office has a lot to answer for.”

Williams was in office when the first contract was approved in 2017. The second was approved under Ivey about a month before Waters assumed office, and it is expected to run until 2027.

Armor in Duval

Armor’s entry into the corrections world exploded in 2006, two years after the company’s creation. In that two-year period, the company gained more than $210 million in contracts, according toPrison Legal News. The initial contracts included Broward, Brevard and Hillsborough counties.

It’s unknown exactly how many Florida counties contract with Armor now. The state doesn’t track that data on a local level. The Florida Department of Corrections has a $3.6 million contract with the company to provide mental health services at the Florida Women’s Reception Center in Ocala.

Duval County first signed with the company in 2017 with the help of Boselli, the only former Jaguars player in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Boselli didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment over the past month.

In 2017, the city was able to avoid a competitive bidding process by “piggybacking” off another county’s contract with Armor, a city spokesperson said. When the contract was reupped in 2022, a new city ordinance exempted medical care providers from competitive bidding, allowing the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office to renew Armor’s contract without seeking other bids.

Before renewing the contract, the jail had experienced its own challenge with Armor during the COVID-19 pandemic. In June 2020, a doctor working for Armor spread the virus in the jail, leading to a spike in infections among inmates. Since then, two corrections officers have filed suit against Armor, claiming they were infected after the doctor knowingly exposed them to the coronavirus.

Councilman's role

In 2021, before the second contract was signed, the Florida Commission on Ethics wrote an opinion about Council Vice President Ron Salem’s consultant pharmacist contractwith a subcontractor of Armor, Diamond Pharmaceuticals.

If Salem subcontracted with Diamond, the commission decided, it would not be a conflict of interest with his council duties, but he would need to abstain from voting on any budget that included the Armor contract. Since then, the council has separated the funding for Armor’s contract from the rest of the budget so that Salem could recuse himself, which he has done.

Salem’s relationship with Armor’s subcontractor was no secret. He announced it whenever he recused himself.

The ethics opinion also outlined Salem’s duties with Diamond. That included ensuring medications were properly stored and weren’t expired. He also was tasked with preparing a monthly and quarterly report of his “activities and findings” and areas of improvement for the sheriff's office and Armor.

Salem, who was elected in 2019, doesn’t have any role in the care of inmates or the purchasing or dispensing of medications, according to the opinion.

Armor’s criminal conviction

By the city’s first contract, at least 293 federal lawsuits had been filed against Armor.

Then, in 2018, Armor Correctional Health Services was charged after the death of a Milwaukee inmate. The company was found guilty of neglect of residents of a penal facility and falsification of health care records in November 2022, the month after Jacksonville’s second contract was signed.

“It is extremely rare to prosecute a corporation. However, such a prosecution is justified in particularly egregious circumstances,” Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said in a news release after the conviction was announced. “Armor Correctional betrayed the trust of the people of Milwaukee County by not only neglecting Mr. Thomas and others but also by attempting to hide the neglect by falsifying the medical records.”

A Jacksonville city spokesperson confirmed the city was unaware of Armor’s conviction in November, even though state law bars public contracts with convicted companies. Asked if the news of the conviction will affect the current contract, the spokesperson said, “We encourage all of our contract managers to review their vendor’s performance as to the terms of their contract.” The city did not name the contract manager and declined the Tributary’s request for an interview.

The Florida Department of Management Services opened an investigation into Armor after the Tributary reported that the company failed to inform the state of the conviction. Florida law prohibits public agencies from signing contracts with companies that have been convicted of a crime.

That investigation is continuing.

A representative of Armor said in a statement that “the incident in Milwaukee referenced in the media is currently being disputed in the court system.” Court records show the company appealed the conviction.

Dropped Armor contracts

Armor has lost at least 11 contracts because of a lack of accountability or inadequate care provided by the company’s employees, according to previous reporting and court documents.

Contracts were dropped by the Oklahoma County andEl Paso sheriff’s offices in 2019. In March 2022, the Virginia Department of Corrections dropped its contract statewide. The Clarke County Sheriff’s Officein Georgia has recently asked to drop its agreement with Armor. The New York attorney general sued the company, which led to a $350,000 settlement that forbids Armor from all government contracting for prison health services in New York for three years.

Florida sheriffs have followed.

Armor lost its contract with Broward County after at least 15 deaths were reported in the jail, according to reporting byFlorida Bulldog. In 2018, Volusia County sought bids for other providers after several inmates died by suicide. Council members wanted the contract to include more mental health providers. A year later, Brevard County terminated its contract with Armor. Court records also show that Wakulla and Sarasota counties dropped contracts because the sheriffs weren’t satisfied with Armor’s performance.

In Baker County, Sheriff Scotty Rhoden wrote in a lawsuit that he terminated the contract because he lost trust in Armor.

“In one incident that occurred, one of the Armor physicians told his employee not to convey information to me and to withhold information from me,” wrote Rhoden. “Learning that the Armor doctor gave this instruction concerned me.”

Rhoden wouldn’t comment to the Tributary.

Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly ended his department’s contract in 2019 due to the company’s involvement in the death of 23-year-old Anthony Fennick, who suffered a medical episode.

“In response to this tragedy, Armor has shown little interest in anything other than denying responsibility and trying to bill us for even more money,” Staly said at the time.

Armor disputed it lost the contracts due to deaths in the jails, saying it lost the contracts “through the normal RFP process”, despite what public officials said in those counties.

An annual state audit of the Flagler jail found expired medications, lapses in medical care by Armor and other deficiencies in their services, according to federal court documents. Staly wrote that Armor never contacted him after Fennick’s death. Instead, the company “authored a letter denying liability or several lapses and claiming I overreacted and jumped to conclusion on the services Armor provided overall.”

Armor also contributed to a negative mark against Duval County in a 2022 state audit.

The Florida Model Jail Inspection noted that the Duval jail did not meet standards when it came to giving every inmate a health screening within 14 days of admission.

Forty-two medical charts were reviewed with 34 patients missing those completed appraisals. This led to a backlog of appraisals. The Sheriff’s Office said it assigned staffers to address the backlog. When The Tributary asked about the issue in April, a backlog of health screenings still existed. An Armor representative on June 7 said there is no backlog.

The Tributary asked sheriff's office to confirm the lack of backlog. Deputy Allyn Kelly said in an email, on June 13, “At the close of business yesterday, there were nine health screenings incomplete. These, we are being told, are as the result of several factors to include: the inmate refusing, being out at court, being at the hospital, etc. Please understand this number changes daily.”

After The Tributary’s reporting, the Sheriff’s Office has said it is reviewing Armor’s medical care in the jails.

This story is published through a partnership between WJCT News and The Tributary

Copyright 2023 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

Nichole Manna - The Tributary