Nov 17, 2021 - News
Cobb County jail offers mental health care to detainees
Cobb County Sheriff Craig Owens
Cobb County Sheriff Craig Owens speaks about the Adult Detention Center's new mental health program for detainees as Assistant Chief Michael Register, right, listens. Photo courtesy of Cobb County Sheriff's Office

Detainees housed at the Cobb County Adult Detention Center now have access to around-the-clock mental health services.

What's new: Cobb County Sheriff Craig Owens said his agency is the first in Georgia to partner with WellPath for the initiative.

  • WellPath has provided health care services at the Cobb County Adult Detention Center since 2020. It’s also the health care provider for the DeKalb County Jail and the Georgia Department of Corrections, WellPath president Kip Hallman told Axios.

Details: The program, which started Monday, has a full-time psychiatrist on staff who can diagnose and treat detainees. Registered nurses and licensed practical nurses are also on staff.

  • The services will be available to detainees, including 100 people who were transferred Saturday from the Fulton County Jail under an agreement with Sheriff Pat Labat, Owens said.

Flashback: For years, local activists and civil rights organizations have called on the sheriff’s office to improve conditions at the jail.

  • The deaths of 13 detainees between December 2019 and August 2021 led to a series of town halls hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.
  • The family of one detainee, Kevil Wingo, filed a lawsuit after he died in custody.

What they're saying: More than 70% of Cobb’s 1,435 detainees have various mental health issues, Owens said Monday during a news conference.

  • “As we always say, once they come through those doors, they are under my custody, care and control,” he said. “They are my responsibility.”

Local jails have become the largest provider of mental health services in Georgia, said Cobb County Chief Superior Court Judge Robert Leonard. While it’s not something sheriffs have created, Leonard said it is an issue they have to address.

  • Leonard said the program will “position people to be better situated” when they arrive in court. The earlier judges can be informed of a defendant’s mental health issues, the quicker they can be steered to the services they need.

Yes, but: Hannah Riley, communications director for the Southern Center for Human Rights, said Cobb’s program is a good start, but society should understand that jails are not designed to care for people with mental illnesses.

With this gap in resources, the criminal justice system and county jails “pick up the slack,” Riley said. And once people are booked into jail, they most likely will experience life-changing situations like losing their jobs or custody of their children.

  • “We’ve created such a lackluster social safety net that people who are suffering from mental illness have a good chance of being jailed or incarcerated at some point in their lives,” she said. “The goal has to be not locking these people up in the first place.”
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