Total Pageviews

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Q&A: Morgan sheriff struggles with inmate health costs

Blogger Comments:  Sheriff Puckett is a sheriff and a gentleman.  He could have bashed the previous sheriff for the lack of money she left but he has taken a negative and turned it into a positive.  There are many positive sides for our county.  Nobody is stealing inmate food funds, taking posse funds for their own greedy selves, and not acting as if they are above the law.  The previous sheriff and her thiefdoms caused a lot of harm to our county but they were right in line with about 49 other sheriffs around the state.

Looking forward we need to let rubbish be rubbish because it is just a matter of time before they do something else stupid or illegal.  As for how the sheriffs made money on feeding the inmates the answer is quite clear.  They didn't half-a$$-d feed the inmates.  That is how they made money.  If family members didn't place money on the inmates account they received very little food.  They also jacked up the prices in the commissary to make a killing off of the inmate's loved ones.

That being said a lot of things have changed since way back then.  Drugs are evil,  people are not.  The drugs become the person's soul and control their actions.  When you look at a person on drugs you don't see the person you know and love because that person's soul has been taken over by the drugs.  You see your loved ones do things that you know they would never do if it wasn't for the drugs and or alcohol.  
Often times drug abuse is secondary to mental illness.  Do what you can with what you have to work with, Puckett.  Treating your employees with respect and you will be respected, feed the inmates adequately, be proactive in booking to try and find any conditions that may become a liability to the SO and the commission, and just keep doing what you are doing as it seems to be working quite well.   

FrontPage on Sunday's DECATUR DAILY.

Morgan County Sheriff Ron Puckett took office nine months ago, bringing to a close the controversial tenure of former Sheriff Ana Franklin. In an interview this month he discussed the transition, his concern about recent inmate deaths, efforts to minimize county expenditures for inmate health care, and how his faith helps him do his job.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Question: Former Sheriff Ana Franklin was in litigation until recently over the inmate food account. Did she leave you with enough funds to feed inmates?
Answer: She didn’t leave us in the hole. We didn’t have to go out and pull money from other accounts to feed our inmates. …
I’m not sure how the previous sheriffs made money on feeding inmates. I think this is the first month that we broke even, where our budget balanced. We started with a new company, Merchants Food, and they are our provider for all of our food. Their menus are built by a dietitian. I think the food is better. I tell people all the time, “It ain’t what your mom cooked at home, but we must be serving pretty good food because they keep coming back.” Maybe it’s not because of the food, but they do keep coming back.
We try to give them quality food. It’s difficult to give them quality food because all you get is $1.75 per day. Buying in bulk helps, but it’s still very difficult to feed an inmate three meals a day for $1.75. 
Q: Will the legislation increasing the amount the state pays beginning next month help?
A: It’s going up to $2.25, 50 cents. So hopefully we’re going to be able to add milk to breakfast. It’s not going to give us steaks by going up 50 cents per meal. 
All of our cooks are inmates. That’s sort of scary in itself. But I’ve eaten some of the food, so it’s not so scary that I didn’t just grab a tray. 
Q: Did Sheriff Franklin generally leave the Sheriff’s Office in good condition?
A: Actually, it’s been a very easy transition. I’m thankful for that. You hear so many horror stories across the state of how sheriffs leave the sheriff’s department and the condition they leave it in. … I’m thankful we didn’t have that here, because it could have easily been that way. The transition has been very good. Ana could have left this place in a horrible condition, but she didn’t. As far as finances, I don’t know that there’s anything we’ve found that was inappropriate.
Q: How did you deal with Franklin’s closest deputies, who were severely criticized by a circuit judge and in lawsuits for their role in executing search warrants on blogger Glenda Lockhart and former Warden Leon Bradley?
A: I was very blessed in the fact that there were several who left before I came here. I was thankful it worked out like it did. (Lt.) Robert Wilson was the only one that was still here, and I just told him, “Look, I’m not going to swear you in. I’m not going to need you here with us.” It wasn’t a fight or a battle. As much as he didn’t like it, he understood.
Q: There have been two recent inmate deaths, one an apparent suicide in the jail and another in which an apparently intoxicated woman became unresponsive in a holding cell. Are you revising procedures to avoid future deaths?
A: We are certainly looking and talking about what we could have done better, whether there is anything we could have done better to help not have that happen again. As far as putting changes in place, we haven’t done that yet because we just haven’t gotten all the information gathered enough to know whether there are changes to make it better. We’re walking that direction, because if there’s something we can do to prevent deaths of any inmate, we certainly want to be on the cutting edge of that. We don’t want people to think that when their loved one comes to Morgan County Jail that the loved one is in danger. … You get inmate deaths thrown in there and it kicks you in the butt. Nobody here wants to see a death of someone we care for. They’re our responsibility. 
When you look at the number of people we book in and book out — we’ve booked about 7,200 people into our jail this calendar year — we do very well with putting people back on the road that hopefully are better than when they came in.
Q: The name of the woman who died Sept. 28 has not been released. Why not?
A: Family. They’ve asked us not to release the name, so in respect for the family we’re not going to release the name.
Our responsibility is care, custody and control of the inmates. Our goal is to never have someone die in our custody. We want them, when they leave here, to be better than when they came. Dying is not a part of that plan. There is only so much that we can do with what we have. This is a building built for incarceration, not for medical help. But we offer medical help (through a contract with Quality Correctional Health Care) to everyone who comes in our door.
Q: When an inmate needs health care from a hospital or outside doctor, do you try to release them to avoid the county getting stuck with the expense?
A: That does happen. It’s a burden on the taxpayers to pay for your surgery. We don’t force them out. But if we know somebody’s got to have a surgery, or is going to have a baby, if we can work with the courts to get them out, we try to get them out before they have that. … We do it because you and I as taxpayers in this county pay for every health bill that goes out. We’re going to take care of the inmate if we have to, but if we can arrange it to where we can let them go and it’s safe to let them go, we do it.
The County Commission doesn’t have the money to pay for all those surgeries. One heart surgery could bankrupt what money we get from the County Commission. And they have to pay it. It doesn’t come out of Ron Puckett’s pocket. This all comes out of the taxpayers’ money that goes to the County Commission. If you’ve got a serious health problem, we’re going to try to get you out of our jail. … If you still owe your debt to society, then we’ll work with the courts to try to get you back here. That allows you to heal at home, instead of having to get surgery and come back here to heal. ... It’s not as black and white as, “We try to kick everybody out.” It’s not my responsibility to worry about the money, but we are concerned about that because it is taxpayer money. I’ve never been told by (Morgan County Commission Chairman) Ray Long, “We can’t pay for surgeries.” They’ve never said that. … If we have to take you to the hospital and we have to pay for it, we’ll pay for it.
Q: Does the Sheriff’s Office have a significant role in immigration enforcement?
A: There are people here who are waiting for (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to come get them. Probably every week ICE is here and they come pick them up and take them to Etowah County. That’s their intake for Alabama.
We would call ICE to see if they want this person. A lot of times they don’t want them. … We ask if ICE wants them (before releasing them from the jail) and if they say yes we give them 48 hours to come pick them up.
Q: What role do you see deputies having in immigration enforcement?
A: If it’s somebody who is a problem, we’re more than likely going to arrest them. Then if they come to our jail and they don’t have a Social Security number, if they don’t have the legal information that they need to have, then we’re going to call ICE. ...
But in most cases, out in the community when we’re talking to people, we don’t ask them if they’re illegal. It’s if we have an encounter with them where we have to put cuffs on them, that’s when we start asking. Other than that we don’t really know if they’re illegal. If we’re just talking to a person on the street, we don’t have a reason to say, “Let me see your Green Card.” We don’t do that.
Q: Is funding a problem for the Sheriff’s Office?
A: Absolutely. Funding is a problem. There are things that we need. We need more employees. You’ve got a lot of calls for service on the road and you only have so many deputies to put out there on the road. We need more people everywhere, really.
We compromised in the jail to get raises by lowering the number of corrections officers we have. We truly believe we’re safe with those numbers, but when you’re looking at 600 inmates in our jail and you have less than 100 corrections officers downstairs, you’re on the line of minimal requirements of having enough people in the jail. Especially if you’ve got anybody on any type of leave — medical, pregnancy, sick, injured, vacation — you just have a skeleton crew. It’s a hard balance because you want them to make more money, and yet the county, I believe they give us everything they can. We just need more.
Q: What are your main sources of revenue other than the County Commission?
A: Honestly, if it wasn’t for all the other funds that come into the Sheriff’s Office, we would not survive. The County Commission cannot provide us with the money we need to operate this Sheriff’s Office out of their budget.
The pistol permits are a main source of funding. Everything that we make out of pistol permit goes into our general fund to pretty much purchase office supplies. We get $40 a day to house the (approximately 100) federal inmates. We’re negotiating hopefully soon with them about increasing that. ... We have a commissary in the jail where inmates get to buy honey buns. Our biggest seller is ramen noodles.
Q: What are some of your major expenditures?
A: There is no fluff. When I came in, our computer system was corrupt. It was horrible. No one would take our emails because if we sent you an email it would have some type of virus in it. So we spent almost $950,000 trying to get our computers working. You can’t survive in this world without computers. We were like a boat floating without a rudder.
There are a lot of challenges, and almost every one of them deals with money. It’s no one’s fault, but in the Sheriff’s Office we’re just not adequately funded. Every department over at the courthouse would say the exact same thing. 
Q: Are you increasing the amount you charge municipalities (other than Decatur, which has a long-term contract) to house inmates?
A: It’s $23 a day now. It costs us $31 a day, at least, to house an inmate. We can’t continue at $23 if it’s costing us $31. The County Commission hasn’t voted on it yet, but we’re looking at increasing it in January.  
Q: What are the county’s most serious crime problems?
A: Drugs continue to be a problem. Almost all of our property crime, you can point back to somebody using drugs. We’re putting more assets into our narcotics unit. We just added a guy to the unit this year. We’re trying to combat that issue countywide. I’m not a doom-and-gloom type guy, but I don’t see that ending. Most people are stealing because they need money to support their drug habit. I think a lot of drug problems trace back to mental illness.
Q: How do mental health issues affect the jail?
A: Mental health is a problem for every county jail in the state. Most people who are going through a mental health crisis don’t have anywhere to go. They’re at home. Their family is finally getting tired of them doing the same thing over and over again. They call us, because there’s nobody else to call. We respond. Most of them don’t want help and refuse to go to the hospital. If we leave, in 30 minutes or an hour we’re going to get called back because they’re back to doing what they were doing. Then we have to take them to jail. They get in here and nobody’s going to bond them out because the family finally has a peaceful moment, and they become our problem.
Forty-six percent of the people we have in our jail have a mental health issue. That’s almost 300 people in our jail. This is a place of incarceration, it’s not a place for health care. It’s a community problem; it’s not just a jail problem. We’ve become the largest mental health care provider in the county.
Q: How does your faith affect the way you do your job?
A: It offers me strength. It offers me an ability to see you not as you are, but what potentially you can be. Even when dealing with deputies. Sometimes deputies have bad days. Employees have bad days. Inmates are here because of bad days and bad decisions. My faith offers me that potential of seeing people not as what they are today, but really as what they can be. ...
I believe that, especially downstairs, the only way these guys are going to really get that hope to not come back here, to fill that void, is with Jesus. Jesus is the only person who can change you. You can go to all those classes downstairs, go to all the 12-step programs, but for me in my faith, I believe that if you do accept Jesus as your savior, you are a new person. And then you decide you don’t want to do the things that are going to return you to prison. That doesn’t mean you won’t come back; mistakes happen. For me, having a biblical worldview, even though I see the evil, it’s hard to hate the person. You know it’s really not the person that’s doing it, it’s the evil that’s within them. 

No comments: