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National civil rights group calls for federal investigation into Broward jails after deaths

Calls for reform, increased staffing and resources for Broward’s four jail facilities are rising after 21 inmate deaths have been reported within the county jail system in less than three years.
Amy Beth Bennett
Sun Sentinel
Calls for reform, increased staffing and resources for Broward’s four jail facilities are rising after 21 inmate deaths have been reported within the county jail system in less than three years.

One of the nation’s most influential civil rights groups is calling on the Department of Justice to investigate the Broward County Sheriff’s Office following a string of jail deaths.

The NAACP sent a letter Monday to the U.S. Department of Justice demanding an investigation into the training and oversight at Broward County jails over the number of deaths in custody in recent years — 21 since 2021.

"The NAACP is horrified by the continued injustice that Broward County families have been forced to endure. Make no mistake, every jurisdiction is responsible for the safety and well-being of any detained persons in their custody,” said Derrick Johnson, NAACP President and CEO, said in a statement.

The NAACP letter follows other calls for outside oversight from Broward County Public Defender Gordon Weekes.

In a letter to Sheriff Gregory Tony sent on Dec. 28, Weekes wrote to “urge you to engage and implement outside oversight as it pertains to abuse, medical neglect, and conditions of confinement within the jails.”

READ MORE: Broward inmate deaths sound alarms for reform and resources in county jails

Weekes was writing in response to the death of Janard Geffrard, who was killed in his cell by another inmate because of his sexual orientation, according to the letter obtained by WLRN.

The latest death happened this month when Joseph Kirk, a 34-year-old inmate in the Broward County’s Main Jail in Fort Lauderdale, died at the facility’s hospital. Kirk was being held on a misdemeanor charge in the Main Jail’s detox unit. His death is under investigation.

Weekes says Kirk's death likely resulted from taking smuggled drugs or improper detox protocols.

The inmates who have died were all awaiting trial and had not been convicted of any crimes yet. Some, like Kirk, were arrested for nonviolent crimes. Deaths have included multiple suicides in addition to reports of detainees being physically abused by deputies.

Sheriff Tony told WLRN's The South Florida Roundup that the jails are serving as the county’s largest mental health facility and outside oversight is not the answer.

“The greater issue … is the mental health issue in our community and the lack of resources is forcing more people to go into jail,” he said. “My focal point has been changing the paradigm here and getting our stakeholders, our community, government and everyone else to start investing into mental health facilities so that we don't have to be the last place to take these individuals.”

Tony also said understaffing at the jails was an issue because the salaries are not competitive with those in other counties. A similar issue was raised with staffing issues at the county’s 911 emergency call centers. The county commission gave the Sheriff millions of dollars for salary increases last year.

Almost half of the sheriff’s budget – more than $300 million – goes to the Department of Detention.

The Sheriff's Office has not responded to an email requesting comments on the NAACP letter.

Still, critics like Johnson said that the deaths in jails have shown a “pattern of negligence” from the Sheriff.

"The alarming number of deaths and distressing incidents within Broward County Jails demands swift action," Marsha Ellison, President of the Broward County Branch of the NAACP, said in a statement. “We call upon the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct an immediate and thorough investigation into the Sheriff's Office's training and oversight, ensuring accountability for the lives lost and the well-being of those still in custody.”

Gerard Albert III covers Broward County. He is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University. He can be reached atgalbert@wlrnnews.org
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