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Broward inmate deaths sound alarms for reform and resources in county jails

Broward jail
Amy Beth Bennett
Sun Sentinel (via WLRN)
Calls for reform, increased staffing and resources for Broward’s four jail facilities are rising after 21 inmate deaths have been reported within the county jail system in less than three years.

Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony Tells tells the "South Florida Roundup" that jails have become the go-to mental health facility in the country and he thinks can resolve the issues.

Calls for reform, increased staffing and resources for Broward’s four jail facilities are rising following reports of 21 inmate deaths in less than three years.

The latest happened last week when Joseph Kirk, a 34-year-old inmate in the Broward County’s Main Jail in Fort Lauderdale, died at the facility’s hospital. Kirk was being held on a misdemeanor charge in the Main Jail’s detox unit. His death is under investigation.

The Broward Public Defender’s office says Kirk's death likely resulted from taking smuggled drugs or improper detox protocols.

Whatever the cause, Kirk was the 21st inmate to die in a Broward lockup in less than three years — and he was the third fatality in the past month.

Apart from calls for change, there are also warnings that this is just a reflection of the dysfunctional prison system in Florida as a whole, which a recent report says needs as much as $12 billion in new funds over the next two decades to keep from crumbling altogether.

In an interview Friday on the WLRN's "South Florida Roundup," Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony told host Tim Padgett that he believes jails have become the go-to mental health facility in Broward and nationally.

Gregory Tony
Sheriff Gregory Tony says more money needs to be spent in preventing those with mental health issues from landing behind bars.

“The issue that we're facing within our jails, specifically here in Broward County, but echoing across the country and in the state, is that we have become the de facto mental health institute here in this county,” he said. “We have not placed a greater emphasis on getting people with mental health issues out of jail and getting them into services that they need.”

Broward has the 13th largest operating jail system in the United States, processing about 44,000 inmates a year, according to Tony.

In a letter that WLRN obtained, Broward Public Defender Gordon Weekes wrote to Sheriff Gregory Tony late last month urging him to “engage and implement outside oversight, as it pertains to abuse, medical neglect, and conditions of confinement within the jails of Broward County.”

Weekes goes on to assert that, “Vulnerable populations have been repeatedly overlooked and forced to suffer in the jails, which raises concerns about the culture and climate.”

In response, Tony told WLRN he could not divulge details of investigations regarding inmate deaths. But he said he and Weekes met last week, and agree that more people end up in jail because the county lacks assistance to those needing mental health treatment.

Tony said he took issue with Weekes' latest letter in connection with the latest inmate death.

“Assertions were made about the nature of the facility in itself, the lack of personnel, or the quality of care. And every single one of those investigations has proven differently from his statements,” said Tony.

Tony added that in 2008, Broward Sheriff's Office officials analyzed more than 5,300 inmates in custody. They found that only one in four, or 25%, were receiving mental health services. There has been improvements, according to Tony, who said a similar analysis done last year of 3,500 inmates found that 43% received mental health services.

The Broward County Commission approved a $1 million proposal from the Broward Behavioral Health Coalition to improve how the county corrections system deals with people arrested for non-violent felonies who have mental health or substance abuse issues. A majority of the 21 deaths in Broward jails involved inmates who fall into that category. The county public defender has said conditions in the Broward main jail’s detox unit are especially bad.

Tony said the $1 million will barely make a dent in providing mental health needs, noting a 2019 analysis found that about $300 million of the jail's $1 billion budget is spent on maintaining the jail and keeping defendants in custody.

“And I pose[d] a question to my colleagues. I said, 'if we're spending $300 million a year to keep them in, how many millions of dollars are we spending to keep them out? Right?' And so far, that answer has been $1 million.”

The sheriff said more money needs to be spent in preventing those with mental health issues from landing behind bars.

“The goal should be having checks and balances and a processing center that can divert these individuals so that they never step into a jail," he told WLRN. "And they go to a mental health facility that can track, monitor, issue the necessary medications and psychological evaluations

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Helen Acevedo
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