The Problem With Bensley

Sheriff Bensley answers questions about healthcare for jail inmates to the county commission. Source: Traverse City Record Eagle

Bensley doesn’t take responsibility for his department.

An investigation into Captain Todd Ritter, who ran the Grand Traverse County Jail for seven years, has revealed several grave violations. These include abuses of power, exploitation of women, theft, and dismissal of serious mental health concerns. Over his seven years overseeing Ritter, Sheriff Tom Bensley did nothing. Aubrey Kitzmiller, the wife of a former corrections officer, stated in the letter to Undersheriff Mike Shea that sparked the investigation that she wrote to Bensley twice with her concerns about jail leadership, and he did nothing.

It’s very telling that when corrections officers met with Shea they didn’t go into detail about their concerns in the Sheriff’s office – they waited until they could meet with him at a neutral location. Bensley has been either dismissing or purposefully ignoring human rights violations under his watch. This is unacceptable. To continue this trend, Bensley allowed Ritter to resign instead of firing him – meaning Ritter can now find another job at another jail where he may attempt the same crimes.

Bensley has allowed dangerously inadequate jail health care.

Healthcare at the Grand Traverse County Jail is managed by Wellpath, a national health care contractor hired by the County Commission on the recommendation of Sheriff Bensley.  Nearly 1,400 lawsuits have been filed across the country against Wellpath and one of its precursors, Correct Care Solutions. These include at least 70 times the company has been sued for deaths in the last five years. Outside of these lawsuits, complaints have been arising locally related to Wellpath’s services in the Grand Traverse County Jail.

These include stories of inmates not receiving vital medications, such as anti-seizure and psychiatric medications.  This is particularly concerning- there were at least 51 attempted and 2 completed suicides in the Grand Traverse County Jail between 2011 and 2018.  Sheriff Bensley has publicly stated that he does not believe it is his responsibility to oversee Wellpath, despite the fact that jail oversight is explicitly under the purview of this elected position. When pressed at a County Commission meeting, he explained his viewpoint, people may not want to hear this, but we operate a jail – a facility to keep inmates in there, number one. That’s our responsibility. We’re not a hospital. We’re not a mental health facility.

This May, eight months after he was pressed at the County Commission meeting, Bensley moved towards finding a third party contractor to assess inmate health care. As of now, no changes have been made. The long and short of it is this: oversight of the jail is Sheriff Bensley’s job, no matter how many times he tries to claim otherwise.

Bensley ignores best practices when it comes to addiction.

Harm reduction is an evidence based strategy to minimize negative impacts of drug use while attending to the dignity of individuals who use substances. It includes: Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT), targeted overdose treatment distribution, and needle and syringe service programs.  Harm reduction saves lives and is cost effective. In the context of jail and prison, harm reduction increases the safety of both staff and inmates. Shifting to a harm reduction approach to opioid use disorders (OUDs) is better for people with OUDs, their families and support systems, our communities, and taxpayers.

Sheriff Bensley appears to be more focused on incarcerating people with OUDs than supporting the evidence based strategy of harm reduction. Bensley has repeatedly opposed needle exchange programs and other evidence-based harm reduction initiatives. In 2019, when Grand Traverse County Commissioners were deciding if the health department could use funds from a state harm-reduction grant to contract with local agencies that provide syringe service programs, Bensley spoke out against the initiative, stating, “This only serves to promote safe illegal drug use. The sheriff’s office is in the business of stopping illegal drug use whether it’s safe or not. … By approving this, you are endorsing safe, illegal drug use.” 

The initiative was ultimately not approved; it’s important to note that a sheriff’s views on how something should be policed affect the practices of the entire department – which in turn affects how concerns such as addiction are addressed throughout our county.  Bensley has a track record of endorsing and promoting archaic, punitive, and dangerous practices that further harm individuals, families, and our community.   

Bensley promotes unconstitutional arrests of immigrants.

County-level cooperation with ICE is completely voluntary, and causes serious harm to a community. It makes communities less safe by discouraging cooperation between law enforcement and the immigrant community. ICE detainers, 48-hour holds, have been ruled unconstitutional by several federal courts. These holds are currently honored by Grand Traverse County, posing a liability concern the county. Moreover, cooperation with ICE is done on the taxpayer dime, meaning county money is going to pay for federal work. Finally, cooperation with ICE is a de facto policy of racial profiling that brings the trauma of family separation to our community.

Sheriff Bensely cooperates with ICE and honors 48-hour ICE detainers. Regardless of the nature of a person’s arrest, Bensley states, “We’ll call the feds. That’s how it is.”

Bensley is up for re-election this year. He is not fulfilling the responsibilities of his office. When someone doesn’t do their job, they lose it. As his bosses, we have to hold him accountable and put an end to his negligence and abuses.