MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Shelby County is under scrutiny again for how it awards contracts to those wishing to do business with the county. This time, a healthcare provider raised red flags about mental healthcare services in the Shelby County Jail.

Families who are in pain have joined together after losing a loved one at the Shelby County Jail, which is supposed to be supervised and protected.

Marcus McDonald’s family said he had a mental health crisis in May of 2022. The Shelby County Sheriff’s Department detained him but they say he was never given the mental evaluation that was supposed to happen.

Instead, McDonald was placed in a cell with an inmate who strangled him to death.

“We know that justice will be served,” said Stephanie Ellis, McDonald’s aunt. “And that is all we can ask for at this point.”

WREG obtained records showing  20 inmates have died while in custody since 2022.

When we asked for a cause of death for the inmates, the Sheriff’s office said some of them died from heart issues or drugs. At least two inmates died by suicide, and an autopsy is pending on others.

Several sheriff’s officers have been indicted in the death of Gershun Freeman, even though his cause of death was listed as a psychotic disorder.

Shelby County Commissioner Charlie Caswell is concerned, saying, “There are many people that are in that jail with mental health issues that don’t need to be in jail.”

While the Shelby County Sheriff is responsible for the jail, the County Commission approves contracts, deciding who will provide services there.

“I saw it with my own eyes. The individuals that were in there screaming out for help, but then we don’t have the proper service and all the capacity right now to provide those services,” Caswell said. “So that’s what I’m focusing on myself for many years been fighting about the mental health and trauma that these individuals are sent in and out of jail with, that they need to get that address.”

The big decision on who will provide mental health care to inmates is expected to go before commissioners soon.

Dr. Kaveh Ofogh said he wants to provide health care to the inmates at the Shelby County Jail.

His company, Mediko, was one of three that submitted a bid.

“I was disturbed by reading the news. The negative media coverage about the number of deaths that have happened in Shelby County Detention Center, Shelby County Correctional Facility,” Dr. Ofogh said. “I was disturbed by that, and I thought they need help.”

Dr. Ofogh admitted the almost $37 million bid wasn’t the cheapest, but he says it provides the professionals needed to treat inmates. He also says the bid selection committee was well aware of that.

“They knew the level of staffing that we provide, the price difference, their background, their recommendation letter, their scope of work,” Dr. Ofogh said. “Our proposal was 1100 pages. And despite all that having all that information, their own selection committee scored Mediko the highest.”

WREG received the score sheet for those who bid on the contract, and Mediko did score a 93, which is the highest of the three bidders.

So Dr. Ofogh said he can’t explain why the bid is going to Wellpath, the company that came in second by two points.

“I was shocked. I was shocked,” Dr. Ofogh said. “Why would the county not respect their own selection committee decision?”

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Dr. Ofogh said he got a rejection letter, and he also showed WREG what he calls the congratulatory letter the County sent Wellpath, the company that provided the cheapest bid.

But was it premature? The County Commission has the final say on who will provide health care services, and right now, the vote has not even gone before the Commission.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris told us Wellpath had a lower cost, but he wants to look at providing services so those with mental health needs don’t end up in jail in the first place.

“We need to build a new building in Shelby County that delivers mental health care access to folks in that jail who are eligible and needed,” Mayor Harris said. “We need the stabilization program that we administer the last for two weeks. And that gets people out of those jails who were eligible, gets them into a program, gets them back on their meds, and gets them back as productive members of our community.”

Shelby County  Commissioner Britney Thornton has heard plenty about the dilemma, including the long time Wellpath has had the jail health care contract.

 “I mean, I feel like 17 years of having access to a jail contract, it just makes you ask questions,” Thornton said.

Dr. Ofogh says he wants to provide something different.

“We have to be more proactive to hire higher quantity and higher quality of health care professionals at our correctional facilities, especially in inner cities like Memphis otherwise nothing will change, Dr. Ofogh said.

The final decision on the jail health care contract is expected soon. But it also highlights what has become a major issue for the county, the awarding of contracts, and how much progress the county has or hasn’t made after several lawsuits as many push for change.

WREG has also contacted Wellpath for a comment but has not heard back.