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Broward public defender keeps up drumbeat for better services for mentally ill inmates in jail

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.<br/>
Amy Beth Bennett
Sun Sentinel
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 Public Defender Gordon Weekes continues his push for federal help for providing services for scores of mentally ill inmates in Broward jails. The sheriff's office says it isn't needed.

Following the suicide of an inmate last month, Broward County’s Public Defender has renewed calls for federal intervention into mental health protocols in Broward County jails, which are run by the sheriff’s office.

In a letter sent to Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony, Public Defender Gordon Weekes called attention to the April 14 suicide in a Broward jail and listed protocols he wants to see implemented in the jails.

During a tour of the Broward County Main Jail last week, WLRN News witnessed some of these protocols — such as regular monitoring and checks on inmates — already implemented by BSO officials.

The letter is the latest in a series of attempts to push BSO to address how they handle mentally ill inmates as they maintain a jail system that serves as the county's largest mental health facility.

In February, WLRN reported that Weekes requested federal intervention into how mentally ill inmates are handled in the jail system. This month, BSO shared a letter with WLRN from Colonel Timothy Irvin, the Executive Director for the Department of Detention and Community Programs, sent to the U.S. Department of Justice defending BSO.

“When viewed within the proper context…I believe that you will come to the conclusion that investigation and additional oversight is unwarranted,” the February letter read.

BSO has made “strides… with regard to the delivery of mental health care,” according to a 2024 expert report, while housing an inmate population that has about 1,600 people with mental health issues.

The jail system is regularly inspected by a mental health expert as part of a consent decree stemming from a decades-old federal lawsuit. According to an inspection report filed in January, Dr. Kathryn Burns wrote that she was “impressed with the dedication and progress” made by BSO in addressing the requirements of the settlement agreement.

Those requirements include protocols for screening inmates for mental health issues during intake, suicide prevention procedures and inmates’ access to care.

Burns found that BSO was in compliance since her last visit. “Additionally, one component moved from partial to substantial compliance and four moved from non-compliant to partial compliance,” her report read.

Another unannounced January inspection — completed by the Florida Model Jail Standard team — found that BSO was also in compliance.

Still, Weekes says the suicide of a 21-year-old man and the attempted suicide of another inmate — both in April — “underscore the urgent need for enhanced mental health care and suicide prevention measures within the jail facility.”

The 21-year-old man, who WLRN News is not naming, had a history of mental health issues and had a previous arrest pending in mental health court, according to the Clerk of the Court’s office.

He was again arrested in January when Sunrise police officers found him “rambling incoherently” after using a hammer to try and steal a woman’s duffle bag on a county bus. He was later found incompetent to proceed and his case was transferred to the court’s mental health division.

Weekes, in his May letter to BSO, said the man was in the jail's North Bureau and was initially placed on suicide watch but was “unfortunately removed from suicide watch while he clearly was exhibiting suicidal ideation.”

By Weekes' count, there have been 24 deaths in Broward jails in the last four years.

“Federal authorities can provide valuable resources, expertise, and oversight to address the systemic issues contributing to the alarming rate of suicides within Broward County Jails,” wrote Weekes in his May 8 letter.

Sheriff Gregory Tony has made the issue of addressing mental illness within the jail population a priority for his administration, according to Irvin.

In 2021, Tony created a team dedicated to serving inmates with serious mental illness across all jail facilities. He also increased the number of detention deputies with crisis intervention training, a program designed to help staff recognize the symptoms of mental illness and use crisis de-escalation skills, according to Irvin’s letter.

“Currently, there are 481 detention deputies who are CIT-certified, representing approximately 50% of sworn staff, with additional training planned to increase those numbers even further,” he said in his February letter to the DOJ.

Staffing issues

One area where BSO acknowledged an issue was staffing, stating that as of this week the Department of Detention has 170 open positions. BSO has requested a budget increase of $67 million from the county for the Department of Detention, bringing the total budget for the department to almost $385 million. BSO wants the money to fund 1,712 full-time positions.

BSO’s requested budget from the county for the 2025 fiscal year is just over $1 billion, a 37% increase from last year.

The Department of Detention takes up the biggest chunk of BSO’s regional services budget, almost 38%, according to county documents.

Sheriff Gregory Tony
CLIFF FROMMER/ Broward Sheriff's Office
Sheriff Gregory Tony

Tony, speaking on WLRN’s The South Florida Roundup earlier this year, argued that the deaths were not an under-staffing problem. He said jails were overwhelmed by the sheer amount of inmates requiring mental health services, which he estimated to be almost half the jail population. 

Detention staff last week estimated the number of inmates with mental health issues was about 1,600, or 47% of the jail’s population.

BSO staff said that in addition to the staff of Wellpath, the jail system’s healthcare provider, they have mental health specialists on staff who conduct checks on inmates.

According to Irvin’s letter, BSO employs mental health professionals within its In-Custody Behavioral Services Division. That includes “psychologists, mental health specialists, program specialists, and doctoral interns who provide mental health and program services to persons housed in the Residential Mental Health Treatment units.”

The sheriff's office has repeatedly pointed to county commissioners and other stakeholders to dedicate resources for mentally ill inmates — mainly to get them out of jail and into programs that can assist them.

They "have largely been silent," Irving wrote.

BSO opens jail to reporters for first time

During last week’s tour, members of the press were guided — for the first time — through the detention process a defendant experiences following their arrest.

During the intake process, people who are showing signs of substance abuse or mental health issues are screened and, if found to be a danger to themselves, placed in separate units to be monitored.

Some may be moved to the jail system’s north bureau where “the primary mission … is to house and manage the mentally ill, medically infirm and special needs inmate population.”

Some inmates are given a special uniform known as a safety smock or anti-suicide smock.

Detention deputies perform cell checks on all inmates every half-hour, according to BSO staff. Juveniles and those with mental health issues are checked on more frequently.

Dr. Andrew Gross, a Systemwide Behavioral Health Director for Wellpath, told reporters that there is a mental health coordinator at all jail locations in Broward. The inmates who are placed on suicide watch by mental health professionals at the jail are monitored with video and placed in cells that are stripped of objects that could be used for self-harm.

They are also given “suicide-sitters” who monitor them. Once a person is taken off suicide-watch, they are usually reintroduced into the jail’s general population. That decision is made by a member of the Wellpath team and BSO.

Some who need "higher levels of care that cannot be provided within the jail facilities are sent to an appropriate outside medical or mental health care facility," Irvin wrote.

As of the February letter, approximately 20 inmates are receiving care at outside mental health receiving facilities.

County pledges $1 million for program

The deaths are a problem, say county commissioners, that is in the hands of BSO. Still, they hope a newly expanded post-arrest diversion program will be part of a solution.

In January, the county gave Broward Behavioral Health Coalition just over $1 million dollars for the program. It offers comprehensive care to people with mental health or substance abuse issues who are arrested.

“This money is going to pay for care coordination and case management, but also it's going to pay for housing. It's going to pay for transportation. It's going to pay for a lot of other things that we need to keep people out of jail,” said Silvia Quintana, who leads the coalition.

With the new money, the program can now help about 200 people.

Some of the money will go towards temporary housing for people in the program. Affordable housing is a major issue facing South Florida residents and has been a focus of the county commission. It is one of the least affordable places to live in the country.

Tony was unimpressed with the amount of county money going towards keeping the mentally ill out of jails.

“I want to put this in context why I'm so adamantly opposed to thinking that a million dollars is going to make a dent in this issue. We spend $117 million every year focusing on keeping these people in custody, and we're putting a million dollars forward in a project to think that that's going to make a significant difference,” Tony told WLRN News in January.

Tony acknowledges that arrest-diversion programs have been successful at keeping people out of jail across the country, but that, in a county as large as Broward, more resources are needed to prevent arrests in the first place.

“The issue that we're facing within our jails specifically here in Broward County, but echoing across the country and in the state, is we have become the de facto mental health institute here in this county, and it's continued across the state, and it echoes across the United States,” he said.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, you can get help by calling 988 or visiting the lifeline website.

Copyright 2024 WLRN 91.3 FM

Gerard Albert III is a senior journalism major at Florida International University, who flip-flopped around creative interests until being pulled away by the rush of reporting.