CROWN POINT | Lake County has taken a major step toward meeting federal inmate health care standards.
"We are starting to become a model for other counties," Sheriff John Buncich said Friday following this week's visit of federal monitors who found sustained improvement in the Lake County Jail and its staff.
The monitors found the jail in sustained compliance for the last year on 27 of 99 previous deficiencies in the jail's environment and inmate treatment.
He said the U.S. Department of Justice will join county attorneys next month in asking a federal judge to declare the 1,050-bed lockup no longer needs federal oversight of jail inmates' civil rights in those 27 areas, which include: screening new inmates for mental health problems, monitoring those considered suicide risks, improved fire safety, pest control, food service, medical care, sanitation and reduction in incidents of unnecessary use of force on inmates.
Buncich said, "We are progressing faster than anticipated. I'm very pleased with this."
Although the jail has attained partial or substantial compliance in correcting the 72 other previous deficiencies, the sheriff said justice officials will continue their inspections. The next is scheduled in May.
"We are shooting to have them out completely in two years, " Buncich said. He is running for re-election as sheriff next year.
The sheriff thanked his professional medical department, his staff of corrections officers and county officials who have found the money.
The improvements have come at a cost — more than $8 million spent in the last two years and a projected $5.5 million in 2014 on inmate health care in addition to the jail's regular annual budget of $15 million.
County officials have had little choice but to pay up and smile.
The jail was cited four years ago by the U.S. Department of justice for violating civil rights by systematically denying inmates medical and mental health care.
Former inmates filed a class-action lawsuit over complaints they were held for weeks or months in overcrowded holding cells, having to sleep on a concrete floor stained with human waste and put up with "nearly nonexistent" medical care and won a $7.2 million settlement last year.
Jail health care a priority
Buncich said he found little improvement in the jail when he took office in 2011. He assembled a team of medical professionals, including Dr. William Forgey, who has been medical director since 2012.
The money has turned the jail into a mini-infirmary, detox center and training lab for nursing and psychiatry students who come in contact with about half of the 14,000 incarcerated in the lockup annually, because they represent case histories in drug abuse, street violence and unhealthy lifestyles.
Forgey said Friday his staff has managed more than 10,000 sick call demands within 24 hours, treating hundreds for sexually transmitted diseases, hepatitis, the drug-resistant staph infection MRSA and latent tuberculosis.
"Some inmates have high blood pressure and diabetes and they are smoking and consuming alcohol so they are train-wrecks," Forgey said.
About 10 percent of the inmate population suffer seizures triggered by illicit drug use and physical trauma — about 10 times the national average.
His staff has administered 886,000 medication doses this year. About a third of the inmates are medicated for psychiatric ailment.
"It's a result of the reduction in public mental health spending. We are turning the jail into a mental health facility," Forgey said.
He said he intends to enlarge a section within the jail to house more inmates who are going through either alcohol or drug withdrawal symptoms and require care as frequently as every two hours. Grouping them saves the time it would take to move inmates from random jail cell assignments to the clinic.
Although they had to handle 1,925 urgent care calls this year, his staff was able to treat all but 270 inside the jail, for considerable public savings.
Fiscal officials have criticized the skyrocketing cost of jail health care. Commissioners cut Forgey's budget request for 2014 by 10 percent this week.
Forgey said treating them in the jail not only benefits the inmates but also public health by reducing the infectious diseases inmates carry when they are released.
The sheriff said they also have improved safety in the jail by reducing the inmate overcrowding. The population this week was only 700.
He said they have installed 600 cameras in the jail to monitor and control violent inmates and have equipped corrections officers with devices that track their location. They issue alerts if they fall down or the corrections officer pushes a panic button.
The county also is installing video equipment that will create a digital link between inmates who must be present for a pretrial hearing, eliminating the safety risk of having corrections officers escort them physically into courtrooms.
The equipment also is used for members of the public visiting inmates.