After years of public outcry about the death rate inside the Baton Rouge jail, city-parish officials have recommended a new private company to provide medical care for detainees, marking the latest development in a longstanding push to improve the system and save lives.
Officials confirmed Friday that an evaluation committee recommended that Oklahoma City-based Turn Key Health Clinics replace the current provider, CorrectHealth.
The East Baton Rouge Metro Council is expected to vote next week to approve the proposed $6 million annual contract.
For a vocal group of inmate rights advocates, waving goodbye to CorrectHealth would be a major cause for celebration in Baton Rouge — something they started demanding years ago, after discovering that the death rate inside East Baton Rouge Parish Prison was more than double the national average for pretrial detention facilities.
"This is a momentous day," said Rev. Alexis Anderson with the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition. "While we obviously will do our due diligence on this new company, given how deadly the reign of CorrectHealth has been, I am overjoyed at the idea of getting them out of there."
Just last week, a Baton Rouge prisoner was found unresponsive and later pronounced dead, officials recently confirmed. Travis Okeke, 36, had been booked on simple assault and improper telephone communication counts in May. His cause of death is unknown pending a toxicology screen, according to a spokesman for the coroner.
In December 2020, while officials were drafting the new contract, a man died from hypothermia inside his cell and a CorrectHealth nurse was dismissed from her job in response. Hours before his death, the nurse had concluded Marcus Morris, 61, was experiencing mental health issues, not in need of urgent medical care. The coroner ruled his manner of death natural.
'We need serious accountability'
Advocates and attorneys fear Turn Key will present some of the same problems as CorrectHealth — partly because its own baggage includes a $12.5 million settlement against Garfield County, Oklahoma, in 2019 because a man died behind bars after spending over 55 hours strapped into a restraint chair.
Turn Key was providing medical care in that jail, and the lawsuit alleged both corrections officials and medical staff failed to intervene.
In addition to the civil suit, a grand jury indicted six people — including the sheriff, jail administrator and two jail nurses — on state criminal charges of second-degree manslaughter. Three ended up pleading guilty and received almost no jail time. Charges were dismissed against the other defendants, including the nurses.
One of the nurses testified that Turn Key failed to train her on how to handle inmates in restraint chairs, according to coverage from The Enid News & Eagle.
The company ultimately paid a minuscule part of the overall settlement amount, Turn Key general counsel Danny Honeycutt said Friday. "I'm not going to try to relitigate the case, but I will say there were multiple entities involved in this situation, and some were deemed more culpable than others," he said.
No recent prisoner death cases in Baton Rouge have resulted in settlements anywhere near $12.5 million, or criminal charges against jail staff.
Despite some concerns, advocates said they anticipate the new contract will include valuable reporting requirements and allow for more stringent oversight.
"Private companies have profit as their motive — nothing else," Anderson said. "We do need to address that, but until we get there, we need serious accountability."
Baton Rouge officials solicited proposals for a new contract last year, but the pandemic delayed the process.
Georgia-based CorrectHealth also submitted a bid. Officials said the Turn Key proposal was superior: It includes four additional mental health workers, better pay and benefits for employees, a team of floater nurses to minimize vacancies and the use of monitors aimed at minimizing suicides, among other changes. Five other companies also submitted proposals, records show.
Turn Key Health contracts with correctional facilities in several states, including Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri and Texas in addition to Oklahoma.
"We're excited to become members of the Baton Rouge community, get in there and get to work," Honeycutt said.
The company was founded in 2009 by two Oklahoma attorneys: Jesse White and state Rep. Jon Echols, the current company president. A Republican from Oklahoma City, Echols was elected to the state House of Representatives almost a decade ago.
His official bio calls him "an entrepreneur with a heart for small business." He also practices law and teaches law at Oklahoma City University. He has faced scrutiny in recent years for political donations to Oklahoma sheriffs in counties that contract with Turn Key.
A long time coming
The quality of health care afforded to Parish Prison inmates worsened almost a decade ago when then-Gov. Bobby Jindal started privatizing the public charity hospital system, which previously had absorbed most prisoner medical needs in Baton Rouge.
Once jail officials could no longer transport inmates to local hospitals for most medical needs, the parish Emergency Medical Services office started providing treatment inside the jail. But that program struggled with severe staffing shortages, funding problems and other issues.
Rather than increase the price tag, Metro Council members pursued a solution some suspected was too good to be true: privatizing the system and contracting with CorrectHealth for about the same cost.
They signed the $5.3 million annual contract in 2016 following private negotiations with CorrectHealth — without soliciting proposals from different companies. That was after an independent consultant recommended roughly doubling the jail medical budget to $10 million.
So when Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome decided to address longstanding concerns about the jail death rate in early 2020, she announced a comprehensive request for proposal process that would result in a more robust contract.
However, the facility itself remains outdated and deteriorating. East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux routinely bemoans the conditions for prisoners, but proposals to fund a new detention center have repeatedly failed, and years have passed since local officials seriously pursued the issue.
The new contract was designed to increase continuity of care for prisoners upon release, which could include referrals to local medical providers, with a special focus on mental health and addiction treatment, officials said. One of the new positions focuses on providing discharge plans when people leave the jail.
Officials said the ultimate goal is to reduce recidivism, meaning fewer people cycling through the criminal justice system because of untreated mental illness or addiction.
Critics say that while severing ties with CorrectHealth and increasing accountability are positive steps, the whole system is fraught.
"The problem with privatized health care is that these people are primarily motivated by profit, not health outcomes," said David Utter, an attorney with the Claiborne Firm in Savannah who regularly represents East Baton Rouge prisoners and their families. "This stems from a bad policy decision made years ago by city officials to privatize the jail medical program."
Metro Council will consider at its Tuesday meeting whether to approve the proposed contract with Turn Key. The contract would last for four years, with the option to extend twice, for two years each.