I-TEAM: 'They put me out': The cost of care in jail can lead to unexpected release of inmates

Monday, January 20, 2019
(News 12 at 6 o'clock)

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT)-- The pictures strung together show the light long before the dark dependency that claimed a 33-year-old.

Addiction killed him, but before that, it landed him in Webster Detention Center where alleged poor medical treatment fosters complications.

They're sentenced for their crime, but are they also sentenced to poor health? It's a question with an answer that varies depending on who you ask.

We found in the last 4 years, seven Webster Detention inmates died from health complications. In that same time, we've gotten tips about how the cost of care could affect treatment and who is getting it. Some families even claiming the jail releases inmates to avoid paying the price.

The family of Sean O'keefe says it happened to him.

"There's a lot to addiction," Sean's mom, Donna O'Keefe, said. "It's not just if you could love them and get them well, they'd be well."

Sean overdosed April 5. His Georgia death certificate says he was officially pronounced dead April 8, 2019. Donna says heroin was the poison, but prescription drugs acted as the original passage.

Car crashes led to injuries, injuries to prescriptions, prescriptions to addiction, at some point even turning to street drugs.

It's still unclear why, but skin wounds and large abscess began to spread across his body. Hospital records and criminal charges began to swell too.

Drug possession eventually led him to a felony probation sentence. Then, drug possession again ultimately led to Sean being picked up on charges then later booked into Webster Detention Center.

"But even until the day that Sean came back home and died, he had never got that medicine," Donna said.

Previous lawsuits claim the same thing about Webster Detention. Claims cite failure to get medicine or treatment from staff. A lawsuit filed Nov. 15, 2019 blames jail physicians, jailers, the Richmond County Sheriff's Office, and county officials.

The medical company in charge is now Wellpath, but it's compromised of a smaller company formerly known as Correct Care, which has historically managed medical care at Webster. The private company maintains that its licensed staff provides quality care and regular check-ups for inmates.

Complaints not only in Richmond County, but across the nation against the formerly known Correct Care, alleged inmates are prisoners to poor health.

Augusta contracted Wellpath to manage the daily medical needs. But it appears, there is no state agency which daily manages how Wellpath operates within the local county jails.

The Department of Justice and Georgia Department of Corrections tell us they have no jurisdiction over Webster Detention. However, GBI does get called in to investigate when an inmate dies.

The sheriff's office and Wellpath are essentially in charge of itself on the daily basis.

Whistleblowers claim inmates have been dumped when the cost of care is deemed too expensive. And tips to the I-Team claim treatment only gets pricier after inmates original health concerns get put off.

Donna O'Keefe says the situation was similar for Sean.

Although Sean had been to the hospital while as an inmate, his mom says he did not get his ongoing medications while in jail.

We found non-violent offenders, like Sean, make up more than half of the inmate population. A records request from the Richmond County Sheriff's Office counts 589 inmates of the 1000 are booked on non-violent offenses.

Additionally, many are not convicted of the crime yet. Instead, they're waiting on cases to prove their guilt or innocence.

"Yes, it's going to cost. The question is how much is a life worth," asked Sean's dad, Philippe O'Keefe, said. The answer isn't clear if you look at the jail system now.

The 33-year-old was in jail with no bond waiting on a court hearing.
He was also waiting on something else too.

Sean was set to have a surgery while in custody which means the county or Wellpath would have to foot the bill. But according to his mom, the night before the scheduled surgery, he was released.

"'Mom, come get me.' I said, 'What are you talking about?' He said, 'I'm in a parking lot. Come and get me.' I said, 'What are you talking about?' He said, 'They put me out.'"

She tells us his release only came the night before his scheduled surgery. A judge did sign-off on Sean's release from jail. The letter is stamped March 26, about a week before his actual surgery.

The O'Keefe family claims it's too much of a coincidence he was released with no warning right before a surgery the jail would have to cover.

It's not a rare situation, according to Sarah Geraghty with the Southern Center for Human Rights. The group is based out Atlanta and fights to overturn inmate cases and reform like inmate medical care.

"I've seen it more particularly in rural locations, but that is something that happens quite a bit," Geraghty said.

We asked the sheriff's office about medical care at the jail and the cost of it.

RCSO said they don't prioritize whose care they pay for, and that all inmates get treatment. Adding, if they're in custody, the bill will be paid by Wellpath or Richmond County.

However, RCSO does admit they release inmates. Chief Deputy Patrick Clayton told our I-Team through a statement:

"If an inmate has a confirmed, serious, pre-existing medical condition that poses a liability to the county/inmate if incarcerated, the county will work to expedite release, depending on their charges.
This would be as long as this would not jeopardize security to the public."

RCSO would not say if the estimated cost of the inmate's health issues is a main factor in an unexpected release.

The contract between the county/sheriff's office and Wellpath outlines a cap on costs. Wellpath does not cover treatment after its total medical expenses exceed $475,000. After that, the cost falls on the county.

But, not if the inmate gets an expected release.

"Accountability is what needs to be done but the problem is there is no accountability," Philippe said.

Families like the O'Keefe's argue the county and the private company should be responsible for costs because it is allegedly inside the jail where an inmate's health needs are overlooked or ignored.

Although the jail did not pay the price of Sean's surgery, there are still ballooning costs for the jail.

Inmates continue to claim pains and conditions are not tended to in the short run, which lead to emergency treatments and surgeries that costs more in the long run.

A recent lawsuit from University Hospital suggests this. The hospital says the county needed to pay up nearly 300,000 in inmate emergency care. Back in October, hospital lawyers told us they had settled all but two of the 11 claims in the suit.

Advocacy groups like the Southern Center focus efforts on who is in jail instead of solely studying the costs of jail care.

"On the federal level, on the state level, and on the county level, we need to look at how many of these people really need to be in our jails," Geraghty said.

Geraghty is calling for reform on who gets arrested and booked in the first place, which could minimize overcrowding in jails. Their group believes overcrowding plays a role in poor medical treatment. (i.e., the more people to care for, the lower the quality of care.) Southern Center hopes minimizing the jail population could minimize how much healthcare in jails is need altogether.

The O'Keefe family knows it was addiction which arrested Sean's final breath. But they believe the minimal dosage of medical treatment in jail did not help either.

"What we got left?" His mom cried. "A phone that EMS stepped on. A wallet that had no money in it. A bunch of sympathy cards and not my son."

RCSO told us the total spent in 2019 on inmate care was $192,000. Further affirming, the county pays for inmate medical fees whenever

Wellpath did not get back with our I-team for an interview. But they did tell us through email, all inmates have 24/7 access to care, and they can request health services at any time.

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