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Prisoner rights activists listen during the East Baton Rouge Metro Council meeting Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020.

Just one day after the mayor's office acknowledged growing concerns about medical care inside Baton Rouge's jail, Metro Council members of both political parties reached a rare point of agreement in expressing their support of upcoming efforts to address the outsized inmate death rate. 

"Our inmates deserve better," said Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis, a Democrat who noted that some of her own relatives have passed through the jail. "They are still citizens of this parish and we need to treat them decently." 

Several other council members expressed similar views during their meeting Wednesday, speaking before dozens of prisoner rights advocates who poured into council chambers and demanded action from elected officials, some holding signs that said "Death by neglect is murder" and "Stop the deaths in our jails."

Council members also publicly endorsed the mayor's decision to solicit proposals for a new contract providing inmate medical care. That could mean ousting the current provider, a private company called CorrectHealth that receives almost $6 million in public funds to treat the thousands of people cycling through Baton Rouge's jail each year, most of them awaiting trial. 

The contract with CorrectHealth is up for annual renewal in December 2020. Council members agreed there are some holes in it. 

"I want everybody to recognize we have an obligation to protect our inmate population. That is something we have to do," said councilman Dwight Hudson, a Republican. "We've also got to manage the cost of this contract. I know that's something a lot of people don't want to talk about but it's gotta happen."

Some of the criticism from prisoner rights advocates center on the circumstances under which the current contract was drafted and signed. Officials didn't solicit proposals that time around, but instead launched discussions with CorrectHealth without publicly considering other companies or arrangements. 

That was in 2016, when elected officials found themselves scrambling to find an alternative to EMS leadership, which was falling short. EMS had taken over management of inmate medical care after the 2013 closure of Earl K. Long Medical Center, which before had routinely treated local prisoners under the state's charity hospital system. 

Discussions in 2016 included an independent consultant's report that recommended doubling the parish's annual corrections healthcare budget to about $10 million. But officials chose instead to privatize care without a significant increase in cost, signing the $5.3 million contract with CorrectHealth — a contract that has since increased to $5.7 million. 

Prisoner rights advocates asked council members to reconsider some aspects of that contract, especially staffing levels for mental health providers. Advocates pointed to the jail's most recent death, an inmate who hanged himself last month just hours after a social worker took him off mental health observation protocol. That change allowed him to wear a cloth jumpsuit, which he used in the suicide.

His death follows dozens of others over the past several years, most of them involving preexisting medical conditions, records show. CorrectHealth representatives and the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office, which runs Parish Prison, have consistently emphasized the prevalence of preexisting conditions that often go untreated or even undiagnosed until someone's booked into jail and undergoes an intake screening. 

But the inmate death rate remains more than double the national average, and it hasn't decreased since CorrectHealth took over.

"This is a crisis. There is a culture of dehumanization in our jail that has contributed to these deaths, and there's a culture among the decision makers of turning a blind eye," said Baton Rouge activist Jennifer Harding, addressing the council Wednesday. "The house is on fire. It is burning down … and y'all are standing around passing buckets of water and saying 'I wish we knew what to do.' Enough is enough. What is it gonna take?"

Dozens of people spoke at the council meeting. Many were supporters of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition, a grassroots organization. 

"We're not requesting that individuals be housed in a Marriott hotel or given certain luxuries," said Linda Franks, whose son Lamar Johnson died in 2016 after hanging himself inside Parish Prison. "But what we do require is some accountability for the deaths and injuries … in a facility that taxpayers are funding."

This wasn't the first time residents had pleaded with elected officials to address widespread problems at the parish jail, but other attempts received a more muted response. This time, council members presented their own concerns and promised to explore alternatives for inmate medical care. Some asked pointed questions of the CorrectHealth representative in attendance — about mental health care, staffing turnover, inmate grievances, sanitation issues and failures of the pretrial detention system itself. 

Jean Llovet, CorrectHealth's director of clinical services for Louisiana, presented an overview of 2019 statistics outlining care provided in the Baton Rouge jail. She also touted the national accreditation recently awarded to the facility, which indicates its medical care meets certain standardized benchmarks. 

Republican councilman Matt Watson posed a series of questions about the qualifications of employees completing prisoner intake screenings, which address the person's physical and mental health. "I'll just say it. I think we've got a human element problem and I think we've got a problem with the contract," he said with obvious exasperation after listening to Llovet's responses. 

Council members challenged each other on some points but agreed that improvements are needed to better protect parish inmates.

"Those are the people we're talking about — people incarcerated in the hellhole that we call Parish Prison," Collins-Lewis said. "We all know that something has to be done … but we're never gonna get to a solution if everybody doesn't come together."

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