Three former Milwaukee County Jail employees have pleaded guilty in the dehydration death of Terrill Thomas. Thomas’ death shed a spotlight on the jail’s health services provider, which was charged criminally in his death. Milwaukee County is taking steps to change the health services provider at the jail, who is in charge of both medical and mental health care.
Last week, the County Board voted to end its contract with the private, Florida-based medical provider Armor Correctional Health Services. It’s been providing services to Milwaukee County since 2013. Armor’s contract ends on April 1, and the Board approved a two-year contract for a different private Nashville-based health services provider called Wellpath.
County Board Chair Theo Lipscomb says the end goal is for the county to step in to provide care after Wellpath’s contract ends in two years. "This is part of our policy to bring inmate medical services in-house," he explains. "So this is really a bridge to that."
Seven people died, including an infant, when Armor was running health services at the jail and David Clarke was sheriff. "It’s important we get this right," says Lipscomb. "Lives are literally on the line and we’re responsible for people in our care. Innocent until proven guilty, and even if guilty, no one is sentenced to life or death, [they have time to serve, and then they’re returning to the community and we should make sure that they return healthy]."
Sheriff Earnell Lucas is the new head of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail. He was unavailable for an interview about changes in health policy or providers. But in 2018, Interim Sheriff Richard Schmidt reiterated how important inmate wellness is. "Out of 900 inmates here today, over 300 have serious medical issues, over 300 have serious mental health issues," said Schmidt. "This is a very fragile population that deserves the best care possible."
The county has decided that Armor Correctional Services is not that best care. Not only was the company in charge at the time of seven in custody deaths, it was charged criminally – alleged to have falsified records relating to their care of Terrill Thomas and others.
Armor has also had a chronic problem with understaffing. That’s really a constant challenge with jail medical service providers according to Pete Koneazny of Milwaukee’s Legal Aid Society. "It’s a difficult job, and in a market that is somewhat competitive with not lot of nurses and psychiatrists in particular, and maybe also psychologists, there are not a lot of them," he explains.
It may be tough to retain workers if you have an environment that doesn’t seem like a good workplace, but Koneazny thinks steps have been taken to improve conditions. He says there’s new leadership in place, cooperation between medical and custody staff has become a priority, and there’s also less reliance on solitary confinement as a place for inmates with mental health issues.
As the county considers hiring a new provider, it’s also creating a new position—an independent monitor with clinical experience. That’s something Koneazny supports. “So rather than have someone that just says are you staying within budget and staffing and objective things, as I understand the new plan it will include an independent contract monitor with medical and mental health expertise that will be looking at qualitative issues on an ongoing basis," he says. "If that is how it appears to be on paper, that will be a significant improvement in the model.”
“The agreement is a done deal," says County Executive Chris Abele. He’s on board with the county board proposal and will sign it after it goes to the courts to be approved. Abele understands that the county board is pushing for the services to become in-house, and he says it’s not something the county can be reckless about.
"We are already working on putting together a plan to try and do that as responsibly as we possibly can," notes Abele. "[We're] looking at every provider that we can learn from around the country and trying to get best practices, bringing in national experts. As everybody knows it’s a difficult function for anyone to provide."