I-TEAM: Too many inmates at Webster Detention Center?

Monday, Feb. 17, 2019
News 12 at 6 O'Clock/NBC 7

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- Constitutional rights say inmates are required to get adequate medical care no matter the charges they face, but those behind the bars and inside the walls of the Webster Detention Center say the opposite continues to happen.

Complaints filed in the district courts cite breathing problems or extreme surgery needed, issues which stem from delayed treatment or no treatment at all in jail, according the the legal documents. Our I-Team's previous investigation even revealed if the cost of care is deem too expensive, inmates get unexpectedly released.

This appears to be only a symptom of a problem, though. However, one source of it can be traced to overcrowding.

"It's been my experience shortness of breath, chest pains, which are emergency situations, are often dismissed or delayed being checked on."

"If you have somebody whose sustained a major head injury and you're not monitoring or following them throughout your shift, there is that potential that they're found dead."

These audio recording are stories from inside the jail, straight from former employees who've provided medical care to inmates at Webster. Our I-Team has chosen to protect their identity due to former staff members' fear of retaliation.

Former staff claim care does not meet the medical standard.

"Why they are there, what they were arrested for, should have no bearing on the care provided to them," one person said.

Federal law mandates that same thing, and the National Commission on Correctional Healthcare says it, too.

Yet, legal documents allege the opposite of the medical company in charge at Webster. Records show inmates and their families have filed previous lawsuits against Correct Care, now know as Wellpath.

The complaints cite "deliberate indifference to serious medical need," "not receiving medication because of its cost," and "denied access to treatment." Another complaint even says the death of an inmate was the result of a lack of care by staff.

"What my experience has been there is the automatic dismissal of somebody being an inmate, being less than and that's unfortunate," one person said.

There are 1,000 inmates at Webster, and 589 inmates are booked on non-violent charges. Crimes that may have been linked to drug addictions, mental illness or even traffic misdemeanors. Our last investigation shed light on groups like Southern Center for Human Rights, which says who goes to jail needs to be re-examined at the local, state, and federal level.

SCHR argues it could reduce how many inmate there are, which could reduce the cost of care and perhaps further improve the quality of it.

Augusta Commissioners voted 2 months ago to move inmates from Webster Detention to the Richmond County Correctional Institution. The agenda attachment, dated Dec. 17, notes RCCI could help with at least 50 accommodations.

Richmond County has been down this road before. And, it's no road less traveled for other counties either.

At least 21 percent of county jails across the state are overcapacity, according to recent GBI reports.

And former jail staff report, a symptom to that overcrowding is an underwhelming response to inmates' medical concerns.

But, former staff members allege it's not the jail officers who are dismissive.

"Most often, the officers at the Richmond County jail are actually compassionate." one person said. "They will call. They will ask for help.
There have been situations where officers have called numerous times throughout his shift for an inmate."

The former staff claims those calls have gone ignored.

If calls for help go delayed or ignored, the call to their medical oath goes delayed and ignored too.

Medical professionals make a promise called the Hippocratic Oath were the pledge to provide treatment and care for all patients.

The Department of Justice calls it a violation to the 8th Amendment when correction officials are deliberately indifferent to an inmates serious medical needs.

One former staff member says they recall a particular situation where they claim they were advised against inmate assessment.

"The very next day I saw him and was very specifically told by my supervisors and the nursing department to not treat him and not further assess him," they said.

We asked Wellpath about these allegations against staff, they have not responded to this specifically. However, the medical company has told us, every inmate gets treatment if needed and has access to medical care 24/7.

No matter the instance, National Commission standards require medical staff in jails and prisons to be unbiased in how they the administer care.

While national guidelines acknowledge attitudes by correction officials towards inmates play a role in care, data also suggests overcrowding is an indicator to the quality of it.

Our last investigation revealed when the cost of care is expensive, inmates get unexpected releases.

Donna O'Keefe said it happened to her son, Sean. O'Keefe says it happened to Sean when his health -- both mental and physical -- had already worsened. Sean was in jail on drug charges related to his addiction.

O'Keefe told our I-Team about the unexpected night.

"The very next night, at 10 minutes to 10 p.m., Sean called me, 'Mom come get me.' I said, 'What are you talking about?' He said, 'I'm in a parking lot, come and get me.'"

We found Georgia has a higher incarceration rate than the national average, according to prisonpolicy.org.

And here in Augusta, Webster whistleblowers claim there are too many inmates and too few resources.

"I just wish there was some other way to try and improve the training they have," one person said.

Access to care includes both emergency and routine, plus facilities must have the capacity to do it-- according to the national standards.

But the overcapacity of the cells might the issue for the care within them, at least for Webster.

Wellpath released a statement to our I-team tonight about inmates' and former staff' allegations of poor medical treatment:

“Wellpath does not respond to rumors or unsubstantiated allegations. Wellpath’s business is grounded in providing excellent patient care, and in providing excellent service and value for our clients. Our core mission is always to ensure that all of our patients receive the highest standard of care. Our track record of improving facilities, having more than 200 site accreditations, and 20 Triple Crown (NCCHC, ACA & CALEA*) accredited sites is evidence of our commitment to healthcare over any other factor. The Charles B. Webster Detention Center is one of our Triple Crown Accredited sites, and we are proud of our work there alongside the dedicated professionals of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office. Our healthcare team at Charles B. Webster is focused on quickly assessing and treating patients under incredibly difficult circumstances on a daily basis.” Kip Hallman, Chief Executive Officer, Wellpath .

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