Officials seek solutions to mental health care at Chatham County jail

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, got an “eye-opening ” look at one of Chatham County’s largest health mental institutions this week as he toured the Chatham County jail.

Carter met with Sheriff John Wilcher and other leaders Wednesday afternoon to discuss ways to address the growing population of mental health patients at the county jail.

“I really want to thank the sheriff and his staff for this very sobering experience,” he said. “I can tell you that this is real life, and we are doing a disservice to those who are mentally ill that we are throwing in our jails and that’s not where they need to be.”

At the heart of the issue is the costly and ineffective cycle of arresting mentally ill patients who commit minor crimes, treating and releasing them, only to arrest them again for the same crime, Wilcher said at a news conference Wednesday.

“We need a facility in this county that we can take people and offer them medications if they are arrested on misdemeanor charges,” he said. “I know the police department has a job to do — every police department in this county does. But they arrested a girl Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday for criminal trespassing. She is a mental health person. We let her out of jail and she goes back to that same house (where she’s trespassing) because she thinks she lives there.”

The Chatham County jail houses about 1,800 inmates, 6 percent of which have been clinically diagnosed as mentally ill. And about 300 of those 1,800 inmates use psychotropic drugs, which are used to improve an individual’s mood, cognition or overt behavior, Wilcher said.

Officials are also concerned about the safety of the officers dealing with the inmates with mental health issues. Wilcher and jail staff on Wednesday showed Carter and other leaders a video of inmates attacking officers while in custody.

Wilcher and Carter are looking for alternatives to cut costs while safely housing inmates with mental illness. It costs taxpayers about $70 per day per inmate, according to the sheriff. And with the help of Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, and County Commissioner Helen Stone, Wilcher said he thinks progress is finally being made.

“I’ve been trying to get this done for over 30 years and I think that it’s finally coming to head with the help of these people,” he said. “Are we going to get it all done in a day? No. Are we going to try? Yes.”

Carter said he is co-sponsoring a bill with Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., to address mental health-related issues including funding for necessary facilities.

Earlier this month, prosecutors with the Chatham County District Attorney’s Office declined to bring charges in the death of inmate Demilo Glover, who was initially booked at the jail on March 4 for misdemeanor charges of DUI and other traffic infractions. Glover had complained to nurses and correctional officers that he was being plagued by voices and visions. He committed suicide in a cell on March 12 at the jail’s medical unit by hanging himself with a bed sheet.

A Georgia Bureau of Investigation report stated Glover had been placed in the jail’s medical unit for a “mental health hold” in the days before he died. CorrectHealth is responsible for physical and mental health care at the jail.

Chatham County officials are in the midst of a renegotiation with CorrectHealth for a new inmate health services contract, and other county officials have said care for the mentally ill has become a key concern.

“As we have discussed many times, there is a desperate need for improvement in how the county deals with the medical issues, most particularly for those with mental health problems,” wrote Todd Freesemann, the policy and accreditation administrator at the jail, in an email to Assistant County Manager Michael Kaigler in June.

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