AJC Investigation: DeKalb jail had medical staff shortages

Sheriff has since signed a $16.9 million contract with a new medical provider for inmates
Staffing shortages caused some of the DeKalb County Jail’s inmate health care operations to “cease” last month before Sheriff Melody Maddox replaced its medical providers with a $16.9 million contract, records show.

Credit: DAVID TULIS

Credit: DAVID TULIS

Staffing shortages caused some of the DeKalb County Jail’s inmate health care operations to “cease” last month before Sheriff Melody Maddox replaced its medical providers with a $16.9 million contract, records show.

Staffing shortages caused some of the DeKalb County Jail’s inmate health care operations to “cease” last month before Sheriff Melody Maddox replaced its medical providers with a $16.9 million contract, records show.

On March 22, Nashville-based Wellpath sent Maddox’s office a spreadsheet showing the jail had 40 medical and mental health positions open each month between December 2022 and March. Two months later, Maddox’s office sent Wellpath an alarming email about its jail, the largest in Georgia with capacity for 3,636 inmates.

“It has been brought to my attention that we are now NOT or minimally staffed in critical areas such as intake, medication room and main clinic, causing these operations to cease towards the end of the contract,” Kareem Martin, Maddox’s health services manager, wrote in a May 25 email to Wellpath.

Asked about the staffing problems, Maddox’s office said inmate health care “will never be ‘harmed,’ regardless of circumstances. This agency will take whatever steps necessary to ensure that the basic medical and mental health needs of inmates are met.”

Wellpath and the jail’s other medical provider, Centurion Health, were named along with Maddox this year in a lawsuit about the death of Anthony Lamar Walker, a mentally ill man who died from hypothermia in the jail on Dec. 26. The lawsuit, which alleges negligence and constitutional rights violations, says the jail “failed to provide any staff person assigned to monitor” the floor where Walker was held.

Walker, 34, was among nine people who died in the jail’s custody last year, its highest yearly total since 2009, records show. Four died of heart-related conditions, one from peritonitis and three hanged themselves in their cells.

Wellpath and Centurion did not respond to repeated requests for comment but emailed Maddox’s office, saying they were working to fill openings.

Maddox replaced them this month with Miami-based Armor Health under a new contract she signed in April. Last year, Armor Health was found guilty of falsifying medical records and neglecting a jail inmate. The conviction stemmed from the 2016 dehydration death of a Milwaukee County Jail detainee.

Maddox declined to comment about Armor Health’s conviction, but said in a news release that she expects the company to be a “productive partner.”

“Armor addresses a priority area of inmate care in today’s jail environment: A collaborative, holistic approach to medical and behavioral/mental health needs.”

Armor Health did not respond to requests for comment, but CEO Otto Campo, included a statement in Maddox’s release, saying his company’s experience “paired with our unique approach to data analytics gives us enhanced visibility, insight and perspective into our patient population, and enables us to create individualized care plans.”

Meanwhile, the Gwinnett and Fulton county jails, which have both experienced many inmate deaths since 2009, have made important decisions in the last few years about inmate health care. Both have worked with Birmingham-based NaphCare. The company is facing a medical malpractice lawsuit from the family of a 26-year-old Dacula man who died from a bleeding intestinal ulcer in Gwinnett’s jail two years ago. The lawsuit accuses the company and some physicians and nurses of failing to provide adequate and timely care to Deion Strayhon. NaphCare has denied the allegations.

Less than a month after Strayhon died, Gwinnett notified NaphCare that it would not renew its contract. Gwinnett’s jail is now working with FirstClass Healthcare, founded by a group of Atlanta-based emergency doctors and physician assistants.

In March, NaphCare warned that its staff members had been assaulted in Fulton’s jail, a patient had been stabbed and that the lockup was the most dangerous of the more than 70 jails it services nationwide. The company later told the Fulton Sheriff’s Office that conditions had worsened and that it would end its $27 million contract with the county on May 31, seven months early.

NaphCare ultimately agreed to stay on in return for more money and greater security. This month, Fulton County commissioners approved a $4.8 million contract amendment for NaphCare to continue working in the jail for the rest of this year.

Related

Credit: Contributed

Record numbers of people are dying in Georgia’s largest jails
In 2021, 22 people died in the custody of Georgia’s five largest jails, or after the jails sent them to hospitals...