Broward hopes new arrest diversion program will help prevent jail deaths
In response to recent inmate deaths, the county gave over $1 million to a program that offers care, housing and transportation to people with mental health or substance abuse issues
With 21 inmates having died in Broward County jails over the past five years, the NAACP this month asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Broward Sheriff's Office. WLRN's Gerard Albert looks at their cases — and whether a new county program is enough.
Last October, Alvin Modeste’s mother called 911. Her son was acting erratic. He threw a wrench and a tire iron at her while she sat in the kitchen. Those missed the 78-year-old. Then he threw a wooden pole at her which bruised her shin.
Before the police arrived, she informed them that her son suffered from mental illness.
Pembroke Pines police officers found Modeste hiding in his closet, according to the Oct. 4 arrest report.
When he refused to leave or show his hands, police officers pepper sprayed him. They handcuffed him and put him in the back of a police car. After an unspecified amount of time, officers opened the car door so the effects of the pepper spray could dissipate.
Modeste was in custody at the North Broward Bureau jail in Pompano Beach, where, according to the sheriff’s office, “the primary mission … is to house and manage the mentally ill, medically infirm and special needs inmate population.”
Two months after his arrest, and days before a psychological evaluation where it would be decided if he could stand trial, Modeste hanged himself in his jail cell. He died at a hospital on Dec. 26.
“It's just hard to find out that my brother died in the jail system, because he wanted to do better in life. He wanted to make something of himself,” said Corrine Modeste, Alvin’s sister. She spoke at a Feb. 1 press conference alongside three other families of men who had died while in the custody of the sheriff’s office.
The families, along with the NAACP and the public defender’s office, are pushing for better procedures and more transparency from the sheriff's office.
The NAACP sent a letter this month asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Broward Sheriff's Office handling of the jails.
“Broward County gave me 15 minutes in the hospital to see him. They told me I had to post a bond if I didn't want any officers there. They didn't have anybody surveilling him in the jail, but they had like two to four deputies there in the hospital. If he's brain dead, how are you looking after him now?” Corrine said, while crying.
Modeste’s death is one of 21 in the past five years that the county’s public defender says are examples of the systematic failures of the Broward County jail system. Broward jails average about 3,600 inmates in custody per day with about 44,000 people spending at least one night in jail annually. The system houses inmates who have been sentenced to less than a year behind bars, and defendants who are on trial or awaiting trial.
Public defender Gordon Weekes says the inmates should be supervised and cared for.
“This system is a justice system. It is a system that's established on principles of fairness, principles of honesty and equity. But when we have folks that are introduced into the system and the system then causes them additional trauma where folks are dying when they are supposed to be protected, cared for and placed in a level of security, the system is failing,” he said.
The Justice Department acknowledged Thursday that it has received the NAACP’s request, but declined to say whether an investigation will be opened. The Associated Press reports that about a dozen state prison and local jail systems are currently under federal investigation nationwide.
Corbin Moberg had been in jail for more than two years awaiting trial on drug trafficking charges when he overdosed on Jan. 1. His father, Robert, said his death “doesn’t make any sense.” He spoke at the press conference wearing a pendant with a picture of his son.
“Corbin was a good kid. Corbin just made a bad choice. I was hoping Corbin would be safe where he was at, and that didn’t work out,” Robert Moberg said, his voice breaking. “Some nights I wake up and can’t go back to sleep. I just lay there thinking about what could have been and how his life could have been in the future. Now, that’s not going to happen because somewhere somebody failed.”
Janard Geffrard was beaten to death by his cellmate. Both suffered from mental illness, according to reports. Jeff Geffrard, his father, told reporters that the sheriff’s office has not said anything to the family about the Dec. 16 attack. Investigators said in court documents that his son was beaten and choked for more than two minutes by his cellmate. Guards apparently didn’t notice anything wrong until more than 20 minutes after the attack had ended.
Janard Geffrard was taken to a hospital where he died two weeks later. He had been jailed awaiting trial for robbery and burglary. The sheriff’s office suspended two guards with pay pending completion of an investigation.
Their deaths, along with Modeste’s, are under investigation by the sheriff’s office.
A 2018 report, part of a federal monitoring of Broward County jails, was damning about the conditions for inmates with serious mental illnesses.
This was before Sheriff Gregory Tony was appointed to his position. Since then the reports have shown gradual improvement in relationships with the jails' mental health services provider Wellpath and improved monitoring and procedures for inmates with mental health issues.
In another report, published this year, health care expert Dr. Kathryn Burns wrote that she has seen "dedication and progress" from the sheriff's office, adding that her findings “demonstrated the strides the defendants have made with regard to the delivery of mental health care in the BSO jails.”
But she said the jails still lack staffing to accommodate inmates with mental health issues.
Speaking on WLRN’s "The South Florida Roundup" on Jan. 26, Tony argued that it was not an understaffing problem, rather that the jails were overwhelmed by the sheer amount of inmates requiring mental health services, which he estimated to be at around "48 to 50 percent" of that population.
“The vacancy issue does not impact the global issue of that. ... That is not something that's a manpower issue," he said.
After WLRN published this article, a representative from the sheriff's office shared the findings of an unannounced inspection by a team of retired law enforcement officers from the Florida Model Jail Standard Commission. The inspection found the jails to be in compliance with state standards.
Still, the deaths in Broward jails are a trend that county commissioners and other elected officials find troubling.
County commissioners give $1 million
The deaths are a problem county commissioners say is in the hands of the sheriff. Still, they hope a newly expanded post-arrest diversion program will be part of a solution.
Last month, the county gave Broward Behavioral Health Coalition just over $1 million for the program. It offers comprehensive care to people with mental health or substance abuse issues who are arrested.
“This money is going to pay for care coordination and case management, but also it's going to pay for housing. It's going to pay for transportation. It's going to pay for a lot of other things that we need to keep people out of the jail,” said Silvia Quintana, who leads the coalition.
With the new money, the program can now help about 200 people.
Some of the money will go toward temporary housing for people in the program. Affordable housing is a major issue facing South Florida residents and has been a focus of the county commission. It is one of the least affordable places to live in the country.
“We can't take people out of the jail and put them on the streets and expect them to get well. They need to live somewhere to have a stable setting so they can go to treatment, they can go to work and so forth. And that continues to be a big issue,” Quintana said.
When someone is arrested, they are screened at the jail for mental health or substance abuse issues. If the person arrested qualifies for the program, then the coalition starts the process of getting them out of jail.
Once out, they are provided services to help them deal with their illness. According to stats kept by the coalition, 226 people have been admitted to the yearlong program. Out of those,146 completed it. None have been rearrested.
That low recidivism rate is why the county is investing in the program. But, Tony said the funding is not nearly enough.
“That figure, and I want to put this in context why I'm so adamantly opposed to thinking that $1 million is going to make a dent in this issue. We spend 117 million dollars every year focusing on keeping these people in custody, and we're putting $1 million forward in a project to think that that's going to make a significant difference,” he told WLRN.
Arrest-diversion programs have been successful at keeping people out of jail across the country. But in a county as big as Broward, Tony says more resources are needed to prevent arrests in the first place.
“The issue that we're facing within our jails, specifically here in Broward County but echoing across the country and in the state, is we have become the de facto mental health institute here in this county, and it's continued across the state, and it echoes across the United States,” he said.
Quintana agrees that more resources are needed for the mentally ill.
“In our community, we don't have enough capacity to absorb, even if they had a perfect system to identify people with mental illness, we don't have the capacity in the community to take everybody either, in all the levels of cares that are needed,” she said.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, you can get help by calling 988 or visiting the lifeline website.
This story was updated to add findings from a 2024 report into Broward jails. Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
Copyright 2024 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.