TRAVERSE CITY — Fear of retaliation from and poor health care from the Grand Traverse County jail’s corporate outsourcer dominated public comment at the Human Rights Commission meeting Monday.
“I’ll go right to the mark,” said Tom Bousamra, Catholic deacon and jail volunteer. “This outsource company they’re using, I’ve just heard endless horror stories. There’s human dignity that we need to take care of and it’s not being respected.”
The Grand Traverse County jail contracts with Wellpath, previously Correct Care Solutions, a $1.5 billion Nashville-based corporation, for inmate healthcare services.
Between Feb. 2018 and Feb. 2019, the contract was not to exceed $85,000, according to the county’s agreement for inmate health care services.
Former inmates, mental health workers and family members of inmates addressed the Commission, a 9-member, city-appointed group.
They told of Iraq war vets denied mental health medications, recovering drug addicts denied treatment medications, lengthy stays in isolation cells for inmates who make complaints about not receiving proper healthcare, and paper copies of grievances and requests — called “kites” — thrown away en masse by corrections officers.
“I spent a month in Grand Traverse County jail in 2008 and the stories I am hearing tonight is exactly what I experienced back in 2008,” said Patty Steele, of Traverse City.
“It hasn’t stopped. Changing the culture? I hear in the Grand Traverse jail, they scoop them (grievances) up and then throw them away.”
Beginning in 2008, Steele served 7 years in prison for driving under the influence and causing an accident in which a 74-year-old man was killed.
Sheriff Tom Bensley attended the Human Rights Commission meeting but did not speak to the testimony.
Co-Chair Susan Odgers, who is also a freelance columnist for the Record-Eagle, said “Sheriff Bensley, it’s minimally awkward to hear you spoken about, and not invite you to speak.”
“Just listening,” Bensley said.
Greg Hall, creator of the Facebook page, “Abuse at the Grand Traverse County jail,” was on the commission’s agenda. He also spoke at length during public comments, and said he is concerned about retaliation.
“My brother-in-law has been approached in the jail by corrections officers and asked what his affiliation with me is,” Hall said. “And for me to stop this. So there is retaliation.”
“With the Ritter situation, there has not been effective leadership for some time,” Hall said, referring to former jail administrator Todd Ritter, who was accused of maintaining intimate relationships with two former inmates in county investigation documents.
“I believe when that’s the leadership you have, over time things erode. Law enforcement is known for having a good ‘ol boys club. I think that sort of thing happened at the jail.”
Commission members stated their desire to take a tour of the jail, and expressed their frustration over being repeatedly put off.
A tour request was made to Ritter in October 2018.
Captain Chris Barsheff was named to the post in June following Ritter’s resignation, and the commission renewed their tour request. The issue has appeared on the group’s agenda under “old business” for 11 straight months.
Co-Chair Becky Rogan said at issue may be a confidentiality form an interim jail administrator required commission members to sign, which some viewed as problematic.
“If we see something untoward, we’re going to call it out,” said Rogan. “The visceral reaction to these comments for me is, these people are speaking up even though they feel like they might be retaliated against.”
Hall said he sent a letter detailing his concerns to Grand Traverse County commissioners, Sheriff Bensley, and County Administrator Nate Alger in July but has yet to hear from them. Commission Chair Rob Hentschel previously said the issue has been referred to legal counsel; Alger said he is working on a response.
The Human Rights Commission did not take any official action regarding the jail, such as passing a resolution or sending official correspondence, but promised further study.
“We will certainly be discussing this further within the commission,” Christie Minervini said. Perhaps we’ll take some action. You won’t have to wait eight weeks to hear from us.”