Recognizing shortcomings and finding ways to fix them is a hallmark of great leadership.
Unfortunately, the discussion about how to address issues with mental health and medical care provided inside Grand Traverse County’s jail has fallen into a leadership vacuum.
We weren’t surprised when Grand Traverse County Sheriff Thomas Bensley strode into a recent press briefing to complain about Record-Eagle reporters’ coverage of concerns about conditions inside the jail he is responsible for operating.
He was referring to accusations of mistreatment that piled on in recent weeks as Greg Hall took to social media to raise alarm after he said his mother didn’t receive her medications during two stays earlier this year in Grand Traverse County’s jail. An internal jail report acknowledges she didn’t receive her medications, including one to control high blood pressure, during a weekend stay in February.
She was taken to the hospital near the end of that jail stint after her blood pressure spiked to dangerous levels.
Hall went public with his concerns after he said the sheriff and other county officials failed to adequately respond when he registered his concerns and asked for action to prevent similar problems for other inmates in the future.
Last week Hall received a response from county administrator Nate Alger, an outline of findings from an internal investigation. The response admits Hall’s mother didn’t receive her medications, but claims they never were delivered to the jail. Hall contends he delivered them himself, and asked Alger to confirm his claim through a review of jail surveillance video — footage Alger said wasn’t saved or archived.
The debate over whether those medications were delivered doesn’t absolve the county from responsibility to provide health care for an inmate. It also doesn’t address overarching concerns about jail operations.
Hall’s request seems reasonable: Inmates in jail for low-level crimes shouldn’t face death because of inadequate health or mental health care.
Bensley’s refusal to talk during the past three weeks about the issues raised, followed by bluster and name calling is a pageant we’ve seen before.
This time, the sheriff entered the press briefing to ask if he would “have our side of the story on the front page of the rag?” He went on to say his department is working to “refute most of what’s been printed.”
The fact is, our reporters have repeatedly asked Bensley and other county officials to speak to the issues Hall and others raised. Further, he declined an opportunity to speak publicly about the problems during a Traverse City Human Rights Commission’s meeting two weeks ago.
The silence followed by angry flailing and defensiveness are concerning.
We’re not worried about the lashing out at this newspaper or our journalists — we are professionals who sometimes find ourselves on the receiving end of venom from government officials who object to scrutiny from an independent, free press.
Our trepidation comes from the trajectory this latest discussion of conditions inside the jail seems to be taking.
The name calling and promises to discredit concerns raised in recent weeks telegraphs intent to argue about, not fix, issues inside the jail.
The problems aren’t secret, although some may wish they weren’t quite so public.
The jail facility — a hodgepodge of additions made during the decades — itself has been pinpointed as problematic by the sheriff and many others. But a new jail has little bearing on the cultural and systemic issues raised in recent years.
During the past decade three inmates have died of suicide inside the jail while dozens of others have injured themselves during attempts.
That all occurred before an internal investigation turned up a litany of misconduct accusations against now former jail Capt. Todd Ritter. Ritter was allowed to resign in April, instead of being fired, just before Michigan State Police investigators were tasked with determining whether any of the accusations against Ritter could constitute criminal behavior.
We were encouraged by the sheriff’s decision to appoint Capt. Chris Barsheff to lead jail operations following Ritter’s ouster. But his tenure is young, and he likely faces a laundry list of problems not of his own making.
Similarly, corrections officers and jail staffers seem to be saddled both with systemic issues — like the decades long surge of inmates suffering from mental illness and addiction — and leaders who seem fixated on reacting to potential lawsuits instead of fixing the conditions that precipitate them.
It appears our sheriff hasn’t accepted the new reality of the State of Michigan’s systemic shift of costs associated with managing the mental health from state institutions to county jails. Unfortunately, he appears to choose to personalize his constituents’ criticism rather than acknowledging the problem and seeking solutions. That obfuscation guarantees the taxpayers of Grand Traverse County will continue to face the liability of lawsuits that will surely continue to occur.
Nobody wants to see the sheriff or jail staffers take blame for systemic shortcomings.
But we also don’t want to watch another inmate’s stay in the Grand Traverse County jail turn into a death sentence.
This problem begs for dialogue and action, not defensiveness and bluster.