County Jail Gets National Accreditation
Sheriff says accreditation from National Commission on Correctional Health Care was "years in the making."
The Milwaukee County Jail has received accreditation from a nationally recognized organization for the standards of medical and mental health care it provides to incarcerated people.
At a press conference Monday, Sheriff Earnell Lucas announced that the jail had achieved accreditation from the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC). This means that the jail, Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office staff, corrections officers and health care workers are “providing a nationally accepted standard of care in health services delivery,” according to the organization.
Wellpath initially received a two-year contract for approximately $39.7 million. In January, the County Board approved an extension of the Wellpath contract for five years and approximately $109 million.
Lucas said the accreditation is an “outstanding recognition” of the jail’s “strict adherence to the high standards and best practices in correctional health care.” He said the accreditation puts Milwaukee County in the top 10% of correctional facilities for health care nationally, given that fewer than 500 have received NCCHC accreditation.
Before accreditation is given, the NCCHC performs an “external peer review” to determine whether the correctional facilities meet the organization’s standards. Once awarded, it lasts for three years, at which time the jail will submit to another comprehensive review of its policies and procedures before it can receive accreditation, said Jail Commander Inspector Aaron Dobson.
The MCSO has contracted with NCCHC’s consulting service, called NRI, which provides “education and training for accreditation,” according to NCCHC. Dobson said NRI consultants work with the jail on a monthly basis and “help with oversight of the mental health and medical program.”
The dehydration death of Mr. Thomas occurred under former Sheriff David Clarke and, along with criminal charges, resulted in a lawsuit and approximately $7 million settlement paid by the county and Armor to his family.
But the work isn’t done yet, Lucas told Urban Milwaukee. Maintaining and improving care in the jail is a journey, he stressed. The sheriff said his predecessor, acting-Sheriff Richard Schmidt, made one of the “more critical decisions” to move the jail forward, and that was making Dobson commander of the jail.
Jails are a complicated correctional setting. The inmates there are often being moved to other facilities and being brought in and out for trial. Dobson said that before the pandemic, the jail would have 32,000 people coming in and out of the jail during a busy year.
With a large population and a large staff involved in providing the necessary comprehensive medical and mental health care, much of it comes down to having the appropriate policies and procedures in place, Dobson said. As the jail was working to achieve its accreditation, the MCSO hired a Chief Legal and Compliance Officer, Lucas said, to “One, make sure we do the right things, and two, that we do them the right way.”
Over the past year, there have been four deaths in the jail. Three, so far, have been attributed to suicide, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported. Dobson said when deaths occur in the facility, “You have to do a debrief and talk to all the parties involved and look at things that you can do better and ways you can improve.”
Lucas said that jails are “no different than hospitals and other institutions where people make choices whether it’s to inflict self harm or to do harm to others.”
Both Lucas and Dobson said that one of the challenges remaining for the jail is the recruitment and retention of correctional officers. The jail has had a problem with retention and understaffing for years, and Lucas and Dobson both say this is because of inadequate compensation.
“We’ve got to find a way to stabilize and keep good people,” Lucas said. The jail lost 80 people in 2020. “So more than a third of my staff has turned over,” Dobson noted.
Dobson said correctional officers need to be paid “for the services and work that they do, like it’s a career type position.” He added that, “the expectations are high and it’s challenging working in this environment and people should be paid appropriately.” Veteran correctional officers are sorely needed, but that requires compensating people well enough to keep them around, he explained.