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Jacksonville sheriff explains change in jail's health care provider after inmate's death

 Duval County Sheriff T.K. Waters joins Mayor Donna Deegan, left, and others on Tuesday, July 25, 2023, to announce a new medical provider at the Duval County jail.
Duval County Sheriff T.K. Waters joins Mayor Donna Deegan, left, and others on Tuesday, July 25, 2023, to announce a new medical provider at the Duval County jail.

The Duval County jail will cut ties with Armor Correctional Health Services after a former inmate died. The new provider, NaphCare, also has raised questions.

Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters says a new health care provider at the Duval County jail — selected after a former inmate's death — will better protect the community and inmates.

The sheriff and Mayor Donna Deegan held a news conference Tuesday to announce that the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office is canceling a $98 million contract with Armor Correctional Health Services. The change was first reported by The Tributary, a WJCT News partner,.

Waters said the jail will switch to a $110 million contract with NaphCare, another private medical provider with a troubled record of inmate safety.

“We are moving off from Armor," Waters said. "(With Naphcare), our contract has things in it that make sure we are safeguarded, our community is safeguarded and our inmates are safeguarded.”

He did not specify the safeguards.

“This is a decision that we left up to the sheriff," Deegan said. "He took a look at everything that was happening, all the issues that you know very well, and I think he made a decision that he felt was in the very best interests of the citizens of Jacksonville.”

The sheriff did not indicate the reason for the change. But police have been investigating the death of Dexter Eric Barry, 54, in November after a stay at the jail. His family contends he died because he did not get the medication he needed after a heart transplant.

Armor issues pile up

Barry had been arrested on a misdemeanor charge of simple assault and insisted to officers repeatedly that he needed his medication, The Tributaryhas reported.

Armor says Barry's medication was ordered but he was discharged before it arrived. The company disputes that he died from the lack of medication.

Armor was awarded its initial noncompetitive contract with the sheriff's office in 2017, before Waters was in office. But the company has been sued in federal court at least 570 times since its founding in 2004, The Tributary reported.

The Tributary also revealed that Armor had hid, in violation of its contract and state law, its own criminal convictions related to medical treatment at another jail, sparking another state investigation.

Armor faced criminal charges in Wisconsin because employees at the Milwaukee County jail lied about checking on a man who died of dehydration after water to his cell was shut off, Wisconsin Public Radio reported in early 2018. The Milwaukee District Attorney's Office charged the health services company with seven misdemeanor counts of intentionally falsifying health records.
Armor was convicted in October on those seven counts and one count of inmate abuse or neglect, according to WITI-TV in Milwaukee. Armor is appealing the conviction.

A Tributaryinvestigation found that jail deaths have tripled ever since the sheriff’s office medical care privatized in October 2017, when Armor took over.

The Tributary also reported at least a dozen people who said they didn’t get their prescriptions while jailed between December of last year and this June.

NaphCare has had problems, too

Alabama-based NaphCare began in 1989 – 15 years before Armor– when James McLane founded a pharmaceutical company to provide drugs to correctional facilities.

NaphCare has active contracts in Florida to handle administrative services, medical records, dialysis units and health care in at least six jails, according to its website.

At least 550 other lawsuits have been filed against NaphCare, according to federal court records. One of those lawsuits ended in a $3 million settlement for the family of a man who died in a Virginia jail in 2015.

In September, Georgia inmate Lashawn Thompson died after being eaten alive by bedbugs. Pictures of his jail cell show rust and trash covered floors. An autopsy showed he was dehydrated, malnourished and, despite needing medication for schizophrenia, had none in his system.

His death was ruled a homicide.

Medical records show NaphCare personnel had a 43-day gap in which there was minimal documentation regarding the care Thompson was given, the autopsy says. A lawsuit against the company is pending.

“There’s no company out there I’ve seen that, you know, is good,” Florida Justice Institute Director Dante Trevisani told The Tributary.

Are there better options?

Prior to 2010, the sheriff’s office had a partnership with the Duval County Health Department. Then, because the state and city couldn’t agree on a contract, the jail transitioned to handling health care in-house.

The move saved taxpayers up to $700,000, The Florida Times-Union reported at the time. T

There was an average of four deaths per year from 2012 to Armor’s takeover.

“Whenever we privatize service, we see dollar bills put before health,” said Denise Rock, the founder and executive director of Florida Cares, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of the incarcerated.

But it’s hard to say whether moving health care in-house is better, Trevisani said.

“What I do know is that when you’re using a private company, there is a profit motive,” he said. “The profit motive incentivizes cutting staff and providing less care. And then the problem is particularly bad in jails because most people are there for short periods of time. And so there’s an incentive to just delay care until people are either released or are transferred to prison.”

It’s hard to say which private company is better than another when they all provide such poor service, said Wanda Bertram, a spokeswoman with the Prison Policy Initiative. “I don’t think I can tell you which of those companies are doing it right because they’re all drowning in lawsuits. They all have the capacity to do those terrible things that Armor has done.”

She said what matters most is how willing the sheriff’s office is to spend more money on providing better health care.

Copyright 2023 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

Dan Scanlan