Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -The East Baton Rouge prison faciity near the airport. A Justice Facility Sizing study was presented to the city Thursday in the Metro Council chambers.

News that an inmate of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison died last weekend came at a pivotal time for the private company in charge of prisoner medical care, which could lose its contract in the coming months.

City officials announced earlier this year their decision to solicit proposals for a new contract, acknowledging the outsized inmate death rate and other concerns about CorrectHealth, the company now in charge. That request for proposal process is finally about to get started and officials expect to have a new contract in place before summer — either with CorrectHealth or with a different provider.

Concerns about the current arrangement once again rose to the surface this week after reports of another inmate death. Marcus Morris, 61, was hospitalized Sunday morning and pronounced dead — just hours after a CorrectHealth nurse concluded he was experiencing mental health issues, not in need of urgent medical care.

That nurse was later dismissed from her job working inside the jail, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. The person was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.

CorrectHealth has declined to answer any questions about what happened, including whether any company employees or contract workers were disciplined in response. "Please know that any death of a patient in our care is tragic and unfortunate," the company said in a statement announcing an internal investigation.

Morris had a history of homelessness and mental illness in addition to serious existing medical problems, including seizure disorder. His cause of death is still under investigation, but there were no signs of trauma, the coroner's office said.

Deputies noticed Morris was in distress early Sunday and called for medical assistance, according to the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office. Officials said a nurse responded, observed Morris inside his cell and concluded he was experiencing mental health issues. The nurse told deputies to keep monitoring him and left. When he didn't get up for breakfast, jail staff called for an ambulance.

Morris had been booked into jail about five weeks ago after Baton Rouge police received complaints about him breaking glass bottles and urinating in the parking lot of a Scenic Highway gas station, according to police reports. He had been banned from the premises after similar behavior the previous day.

When officers searched his criminal history, they found numerous warrants for failure to appear in court on minor alleged offenses over the past several months, including entry or remaining after forbidden, public drinking, urinating in public, theft and simple battery. Those outstanding misdemeanor cases ultimately landed him behind bars Oct. 28. He remained behind bars on $5,800 bond.

It remains unclear why the cases had not been resolved after several weeks. The Baton Rouge City Prosecutor's Office, which is handling most of the charges, did not respond to questions this week.

Both law enforcement and elected officials agree that jail was not the best place for Morris, but he landed there — housed in a solitary confinement cell for mental health observation — because psychiatric treatment options are notoriously lacking, both in Baton Rouge and across the state.

Officials hope that the new jail medical contract will help address some of those holes in the local mental health system, in particular by ensuring more continuity of care for inmates upon release.

That could mean people are being released with a care plan and referrals to local service providers, among other things, said Kris Goranson, the city-parish purchasing director overseeing the request for proposal process. Maybe those people would also get transportation to certain service providers when leaving jail.

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"This work is not happening in isolation," Goranson said. "It's part of a larger push to create a better system for mental health and addiction services, expanded access to health care for Baton Rouge residents, hopefully better health outcomes overall."

The timing of the new contract coincides with the upcoming opening of the Bridge Center for Hope, a new psychiatric stabilization and detox facility in Baton Rouge. The center aims to provide an alternative to overcrowded emergency rooms and the parish prison.

Goranson said the ultimate goal of strengthening the contract is to reduce recidivism, meaning fewer people cycling through the jail because of untreated mental health or addiction issues. Ensuring more transparency is another aim.

The agreement will be written around health outcomes, rather than focusing on operational requirements such as the number of employees and number of hours worked.

When Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome announced several months ago that her administration would revisit the contract, she noted that "discussions about treatment and even deaths at the jail have caused concern among many in the community." The existing contract was approved in 2016 under a previous administration, an arrangement that did not result from a competitive bid process.

Goranson said this upcoming request for proposal will provide a better picture of what the market has to offer. His office has been reviewing other similar contracts to establish best practices. City officials have been meeting with stakeholders and experts, including prisoner rights activists, to get input.

The request for proposal is based on the existing contract amount of $5.65 million, though there is a chance that amount could change during contract negotiations. Officials said the current contract is being maintained month-to-month for now.

Once the city-parish has received responses to its request for proposal, a selection committee will review the proposed contracts and ultimately make a recommendation to the Metro Council. Officials are expecting about a dozen responses from various companies specializing in correctional health care, a profitable field that has grown alongside the American prison population.

Baton Rouge leaders have long bemoaned the state of the parish prison, which has been outdated and run down for years. Even the warden has called the existing jail deplorable for mental health patients.

But multiple proposals to construct a new detention center have failed to garner enough public support.

Meanwhile concerns about the medical program have grown louder in recent years while the inmate death rate has remained well above the statewide and national average. Officials and advocates agree the care was best when prisoners were transported to local hospitals for almost all their health needs, services the state paid for under its public charity hospital system.

But when that system was privatized in 2013, EMS workers started providing primary and preventative care inside the jail. That program experienced widespread problems, which led to the existing contract with CorrectHealth.

Officials are hoping their next contract sees notable improvements.

Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.