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Georgia legislators, citing Reuters report, want every jail death investigated

(Reuters) - Troubled by deaths and questionable care in the state’s jails, several Georgia legislators convened Monday to explore reforms including requiring the state to investigate every fatality and escalating oversight of mental health and drug withdrawal crises.

FILE PHOTO: A jail cell at the Chatham County Detention Center is pictured in Savannah, Georgia, U.S., February 21, 2019.REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Monday’s hearing was called following a Reuters series, Dying Inside, that disclosed death tolls at the nation’s largest jails. The series cited several Georgia case studies and documented 272 inmate deaths among the state’s 13 largest jails from 2008 to 2019. Suicides and medical conditions, often treatable, caused most of the deaths.

Lawmaker David Wilkerson said he and his colleagues intend to craft legislation requiring the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to examine every jail death across the state. Right now, the GBI only gets involved when asked by local sheriffs.

Wilkerson, a Cobb County Democrat, also wants a state body to monitor jails’ intake procedures for inmates suffering mental health and drug withdrawal issues. The ultimate goal, he said, is “making sure that nobody goes to jail, not convicted of a crime, and just sits there and dies.”

He and fellow Democrats Sandra Scott and Kim Schofield heard from witnesses including Craig Owens, the newly elected sheriff of Cobb County. One Reuters report examined the case of Chinedu Efoagui, who died at the Cobb County Adult Detention Center in 2017 of a treatable medical condition after spending 512 days behind bars.

Sheriff Owens said he supported having the GBI investigate every jail death. “We’re doing this in order to be transparent going forward,” Owens said. The GBI, which did not take part in the meeting, did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Georgia ranks among 17 state governments with no mechanism for oversight of local jails, according to research by Reuters and Michele Deitch, a corrections specialist at the University of Texas.

To read the full investigation, click here

James Woodall, the Georgia head of the NAACP, told the legislators the state should divert more mentally ill people from incarceration. “Jails are not a hospital nor a mental health institution,” he said. “We need to be investing in mental health resources.”

Monday’s meeting, held over Zoom, is the start of a larger process the legislators say will lead to new bill proposals. A second session, focused just on mental health care, will come next.

For any proposals to become law, the Democrats will need support from the legislature’s GOP majority. No Republicans took part in Monday’s call but will be invited to the next meeting, said Wilkerson, who cited Reuters’ investigation and local television reports on jail deaths. Last year, the parties passed a law allowing people convicted of misdemeanors to petition to seal their criminal records.

Reporting by Ned Parker. Editing by Ronnie Greene