TRAVERSE CITY — Calls for jail reform came repeatedly this year from citizens, elected officials and via social media, prompting public expressions of frustration, and some concrete action, from Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley.
“Unfortunately, we had a Captain Ritter issue this year which hit pretty hard,” Bensley said, in an interview Friday. “You don’t expect those things. It didn’t shine a positive light on the jail, that’s for sure. It’s a big deal and it still hasn’t been settled yet.”
Todd Ritter, who had served the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Department for decades, most recently as jail administrator, was forced to resign April 11 following accusations of inappropriate conduct with female inmates.
In a May 9 letter, Bensley detailed Ritter’s misconducts as “maintaining intimate relationships” and smoking marijuana with two former inmates, gifting them lunches and county-purchased drug test kits, and other employee policy violations, as previously reported by the Record-Eagle.
County Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg passed the case to Michigan State Police for review, and earlier this month confirmed she was still interviewing witnesses. If charges are filed, it won’t be until January, she said.
Other challenges Bensley highlighted were whether to engage an independent arbiter to monitor inmate healthcare provider, Wellpath; responding to public and social media criticism by Greg Hall and others when not all facts have been made public; and chronic staffing issues within the corrections department.
“It’s no secret that for years we’ve had staffing issues in the jail,” Bensley told county commissioners at a board meeting earlier this year. “We have military deployments for several months, exceeding a year in some places. We have people in training and they can’t work a shift by themselves.”
Bensley was advocating for new hires of part-time bailiffs to staff the county’s district, probate and circuit courts, so full-time corrections officers could spend all their time in the jail.
On any given week, Bensley said he was short four to five corrections officers and often had no choice but to require forced overtime, potentially leading to absenteeism, staff burn-out, health problems and mistakes.
Approval of the hires came that same day.
“So far it’s working well,” Bensley said Friday. “We’ve only been doing it now for about six weeks but we think it’s going to save us a lot of overtime in the jail.”
The unanimous vote by commissioners in September followed a year where various jail issues were repeatedly on the county board’s meeting agenda, there were frequent headlines about controversial healthcare policies, and an advocate’s Facebook page — “Abuse at the Grand Traverse County Jail” — received nearly 40,000 page views, according to its creator, Greg Hall.
What follows is a chronology of changes and challenges faced this year by the sheriff, jail staff, inmates, family members of inmates and the community.
A 63-year-old woman, arrested for embezzlement and booked into the jail Feb. 2, was taken to Munson’s emergency room for evaluation Feb. 4, after experiencing a severe headache, dizziness, and a blood pressure reading of 204 over 123.
Hall, the woman’s adult son and patient advocate, said he took his mother’s blood pressure medication to the jail, and handed it to a nurse on duty within hours of his mother being incarcerated. Her prescription pills were never administered.
A sheriff’s department memo obtained by Hall from his mother’s jail records noted the treating physician at the ER “expressed concern about Hall not receiving her Lasartan (blood pressure medication) while in jail.”
“Whether it’s a willful thing or not, when you intentionally withhold someone’s medication, that’s abuse,” Hall said. After months of communicating privately with county officials, and growing impatience with what he said was a lack of response, Hall created the Facebook page in August as a form of public protest.
“If you see enough smoke,” he said, “there’s got to be fire somewhere.”
Bensley detailed former jail administrator Ritter’s extensive misconducts in a May 9 letter, including “maintaining intimate relationships” with two former inmates, playing favorites with other female inmates, and bringing one on a “work-related” trip to Lansing, later expensing the $192 hotel room.
Ritter also was accused of pulling another former inmate into a closet in the county Governmental Center for “intimate touching” while on the clock, the Record-Eagle previously reported.
Moeggenberg is still considering the case.
“Part of the delay is because victims don’t want to be named in this case,” she said. “They know it’s high profile, and I’ve explained to them that I won’t be releasing their names, but that that isn’t a guarantee their names won’t be made public some other way.”
Longtime sheriff’s department officer Chris Barsheff was appointed by Bensley to replace Ritter and run the jail beginning June 3. Barsheff also was promoted from lieutenant to captain.
“He’s doing very well,” Bensley said. “He has a very steep learning curve, everything is new to him over there, but he’s an excellent communicator.”
Others said they viewed Barsheff’s promotion to the administrative role as a positive change.
“I have huge faith in Capt. Barsheff that he will run a smooth and efficient jail where the inmates are cared for and the corrections officers are cared for,” Moeggenberg said.
Hall said comments he’d heard about Barsheff were positive, that he was hopeful the new jail administrator would improve conditions in the facility and that “time would tell.”
Hall continued throughout the spring and summer to advocate for clarity in the jail’s medication policy and wrote to commissioners and County Administrator Nate Alger July 15.
“I am writing in regards to policies and practices at the Grand Traverse County Jail that I believe are unlawful, discriminatory and harmful to the inmates incarcerated there, as well as a clear and direct civil rights violation,” Hall wrote.
“The problem is simple: Inmates lodged at the jail are not receiving medications they have been lawfully prescribed in a timely manner or are being denied the medications altogether.”
Commission Chair Rob Hentschel referred Hall’s letter to legal counsel and Alger was directed to make an inquiry.
Hall was invited to speak to at a Traverse City Human Rights Commission meeting Sept. 9 where a dozen inmates, former inmates, and families of inmates also shared personal stories of incarceration.
Much of the discussion at the 9-member city-appointed group focused on Wellpath, the $1.5 billion Nashville-based vendor the jail contracts with to provide inmate healthcare.
“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.”
Previously named “Correct Care Solutions,” Wellpath provides inmate healthcare to more than 130,000 adult and juvenile patients in 394 county jails in 36 states, according to the company’s website. From 2014 through 2018, more than 50 federal lawsuits were filed against the company, according to Prison Legal News.
Former inmates, mental health workers and family members told Human Rights Commissioners of Iraq war vets denied mental health medications, recovering drug addicts denied treatment medications, lengthy stays in isolation cells for inmates who complained, and paper copies of grievances — called “kites” — thrown away by corrections officers.
Bensley attended, said he was “just listening,” then at a subsequent meeting gave a lengthy statement on a range of issues.
“There are some options here for an independent third party to keep an eye on what they do,” Bensley said, of Wellpath. “Do we need that? I don’t know. It is an option but it will cost money.”
On Sept. 18, Alger told Hall the inquiry into the medication issue was complete and he’d found no wrongdoing.
“From my review of the information available I believe that jail staff and the staff of Wellpath acted within the policies and procedures of the Grand Traverse County Jail and within the policies of Wellpath and the NCCHC standards,” Alger wrote in a four-page signed statement to Hall.
The NCCHC is the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, a nonprofit focused on healthcare in U.S. jails and prisons.
Hentschel said he thought Alger’s inquiry was detailed and that the county administrator — and former undersheriff — had done a good job of showing the jail’s perspective.
Hall called the report “one-sided.”
“Having a for-profit company delivering healthcare under a county contract is not the best way to care for people,” Hall said. “And I think that company needs to be evaluated.”
Bensley said in a December interview the NCCHC’s resources branch provided evaluation services to county jails for a fee.
“They would evaluate and assess the medical and mental health services, policies, procedures, look at the facility, and record review,” Bensley said. “I haven’t gotten to the next step yet, but it would be for them to give us a dollar amount for cost.”
County officials agreed to a $20,000 settlement with relatives of Marilyn Palmer, 36, who died by suicide in the jail Feb. 28, 2018, 19 days into a sentence for felony identity theft.
The settlement distributed about $3,000 to each of Palmer’s children, $4,000 to funeral costs and $6,600 to attorney Jesse Williams.
“Although the death of Ms. Palmer is difficult to deal with, it was not due to any action or inaction of the Sheriff’s Office,” a press release stated. “The very low settlement amount is a reflection of the minimal, if any, liability the County faced.”
Hours after the settlement was signed, on Oct. 9, a 34-year-old man attempted to hang himself in the jail using a suicide vest.
More than 51 suicide attempts — and two confirmed deaths by suicide — occurred at the jail between 2011 and 2018, the Record-Eagle previously reported.
Also in October, the Record-Eagle’s coverage of jail issues was addressed by Bensley in an Oct. 12 op-ed. Bensley called previous articles, “inaccurate and very misleading.”
“Claims of abuse and neglect have been presented by Mr. Hall and others with no substantive, corroborating evidence,” Bensley wrote.
“Mr. Hall’s complaint is focused on his mother’s medical treatment while she was incarcerated. Unfortunately the entirety of that report can only be released by Mr. Hall because it contains some protected private health information regarding his mother.”
Hall released a redacted version of the report.
The following week, Hall invited a reporter to attend a private meeting between himself, Bensley, Alger, county commissioners Hentschel, Betsy Coffia, Brad Jewett and Deputy County Administrator Chris Forsyth.
Alger told Hall, “We may be able to find common ground. That is why I feel this is valuable.”
Bensley asked Hall which policies and procedures were not followed, and Hall said he did not know, but thought his mother should have been medically evaluated as soon as she was booked into the jail.
Coffia made notes during the meeting, condensing them into seven suggestions for officials to consider: 1) more robust medical assessments on intake; 2) provide a way for family members to communicate with jail staff; 3) anyone dropping off medication to an inmate should be given a receipt; 4) expanding the storage of computer servers so video footage of the jail lobby could be retained instead of being taped over; 5) improved documentation of medical treatment of inmates; 6) barring a security risk, have inmates receive their doctor-prescribed medication and not a substitute; 7) barring a security risk, do not withhold medications from inmates.
Alger and Hall each expressed a willingness to continue the discussion, though as of Dec. 27, no meeting had been scheduled, according to Hall.
Six new part-time bailiffs began training Nov. 1 to staff judicial sessions at the Robert P. Griffin Hall of Justice.
Bensley said the jail paid $304,507 in overtime in 2018 and was “on pace” to spend $340,000 on overtime this year. Staffing the court accounts for some of that amount, he said.
District Court Judges Michael Stepka and Robert Cooney had submitted letters in support of Bensley’s bailiff hiring program; Probate Judge Melanie Stanton submitted a video statement; and District Court Administrator Carol Stocking made an in-person emotional appeal.
She showed commissioners a video of a courtroom incident.
“This whole thing could have gone really, really bad,” Stocking said, about a potentially violent disturbance caused by a defendant convicted of calling in a bomb threat.
“Fortunately, it didn’t. But this kind of thing really does happen in our courts.”
County Commissioners approved a contract with Northern Lakes Community Mental Health Dec. 4 — nearly identical to the 2019 agreement — for another year of jail support services.
The contract, which runs Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2020, will provide a full-time licensed mental health professional and a peer support specialist.
Barsheff and CMH’s Joanie Blamer highlighted the jail’s Crisis Intervention Team training, which provides corrections officers with skills to help them deal with inmates who have a variety of mental health conditions.
“This contract has made huge, huge strides toward improving the mental health services in our jail,” Commissioner Sonny Wheelock said.
So far, three jail staffers are fully trained and the rest of the crew has received some incremental training.
On Dec. 14 there was another suicide attempt in the jail. A 35-year-old female inmate tried to hang herself, was taken to Munson Medical Center, evaluated and later cleared to be returned.
Barsheff said a reorganization in how officers are stationed allowed the officer on duty to respond quickly and render aid.
Also in December, Barsheff, together with Bensley, recommended to county commissioners replace Aramark, the food services vendor at the jail, with another company.
Commissioners approved a three-year, $805,365 contract with Canteen Services, Inc. of Battle Creek, which will serve milk daily, make a hot meal and not a sandwich for Saturday night dinners and improve inmate nutrition.
“This should be a sign that we’re not going to do business as usual,” Barsheff said.
Looking forward to 2020, the non-profit Before, During and After Incarceration has received permission to offer a series of life-skills classes, said BDAI board member, Toni Stanfield.
“This is because there was a change in leadership, but also because BDAI volunteers are in the jail,” she said. “We want the inmates to know that somebody cares.”
Stanfield said she was supportive of hiring bailiffs, of the change in the food vendor, and of the renewal of CMH’s contract.
“These may seem like little changes but they make a big difference,” Stanfield said.
The Life Skills classes will be offered Wednesday evenings from 7 to 9 p.m. beginning with “Biology of Addiction” on Jan. 8 for men and Jan. 15 for women.
Bensley said he is looking toward the future, while taking note of the past.
“We don’t have robots to do our job,” he said. “We have to rely on people. I’ve always said, our biggest asset are the people who work for the sheriff’s office. And sometimes, our biggest liability is the people who work for the sheriff’s office.
“We’re sorting through all that. Some of the stuff we deal with, you just can’t make it up. Hopefully, 2020 will be a safe year for everyone.”