I-TEAM: With Casey's Law, could legislation change the local jail population?

Friday, January 24, 2020
News 12 at 6 O'Clock/NBC at 7

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- The cost of care can lead to inmates getting released unexpectedly from Webster Detention Center. Their families alleged it's all done to avoid big medical fees that often become pricier because health concerns go ignored.

State watchdogs say part of the problem is how many people are in jail in the first place. They're fighting to decrease overcrowding to raise the standard of care, starting with legislation that could send people to rehab and mental health clinics instead of cells.

"What we got left," Donna O'Keefe asked. "A phone that EMS stepped on. A wallet that had no money in it. A bunch of sympathy cards. But not my son."

Sean O'Keefe overdosed April 5, 2019 at home, two days after being unexpectedly released from Webster Detention. The 33-year-old was in jail on drug charges, with no bond, waiting on a hearing.

But he was waiting on something else, too: a surgery for skin wounds and abscess plaguing his body.

However, his mom tells our I-Team he was released the night before the scheduled surgery. A surgery the jail would have to cover if he were still in their custody.

"He said, 'Mom, they put me out. Just come and get me," Donna said.

The Richmond County Sheriff's Office does admit they release inmates for liability reasons. They told our I-Team, everyone gets medical care, and payment of treatment is not prioritized. The medical company in charge of the jail, Wellpath, echoes that point, adding their licensed staff provides care for all patients.

The Southern Center for Human Rights, which works for jail reform, says they found cases like Sean's do not come as a rarity. The watchdog, based out of Atlanta, also found the source of poor inmate medical care is not just about how much it costs, but how many need it.

SCHR told our I-Team inmate population needs to be examined and restructured on the county, state, and federal level.

It's why people across Georgia, like the O'Keefe's, are fighting for legislation called Casey's Law.

The law is named after Matthew Casey, who died from his drug addiction. It gives an addict's family power to seek drug treatment for them, instead of being faced with a criminal sentence for drug possession. Ultimately, it could drop the count of people behind bars.

Our I-Team revealed more than half of Webster inmates are non-violent offenders, many of those like Sean. Additionally, many who claim their medical concerns are overlooked or ignored.

Although both Wellpath and the sheriff's office maintains all inmates have around the clock access to care, families like the O'Keefe's are looking to Casey's Law to minimize the amount of care that's needed behind bars in the first place.

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