Georgia law states it plainly:
The grand jury shall at least once in each calendar year inspect the condition and operations of the county jail. O.C.G.A. § 15-12-71(b)(1)
But when WSAV News 3 investigated two years’ worth of grand jury presentments, jury foremen’s own writings made it clear: Chatham County Grand Jurors have believed they were on a tour of the facility.
The eight grand jury presentments span a two-year period that traces back to the beginning of Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap’s term. Her office coordinated the tours of the jail, though they contend grand jurors receive their instructions from a Chatham County Superior Court Judge.
But one jury foreman from this time period told News 3 the District Attorney’s office made it clear grand jurors were not required to attend, that less than half of jurors their particular tour took the tour, and that the group had no idea its legal charge was to inspect — and not just tour — the Chatham County Detention Center.
“If it was an inspection, I would have expected a checklist,” the former grand jury foreman said.
The tours were each led by representatives of the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office, the agency that was supposed to be inspected. Most grand juries said the highlight of the experience was meeting with dogs from the “Operation New Hope” program at CCDC, which trains unadoptable dogs by cohabitating them with inmates.
In the same time period, four inmates died in Chatham County Jail custody. Even during the grand jury terms that coincided with inmate deaths, the nature of the tours does not appear to change. Many of the juries marveled at the new jail expansion. Some cited identical statistics provided in the tour about recidivism.
Only one grand jury, who concluded their term in the months after the New Year’s Day death of 22-year-old Matthew Ajibade, made recommendations for changes at the jail: that employees should not use the jail infirmary’s X-Ray room as a break room, and that the hotline number for the rape crisis center should be featured more prominently.
A source in the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office familiar with the tours verified the experience of the grand jury foreman who spoke to WSAV News 3.
This written statement from Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap was provided to WSAV News 3 when we informed her of the story we were producing. She did not answer direct questions:
“The Grand Jury for each term of court is instructed on their duties on the day that they are impaneled by a Superior Court judge. It is arranged during each term of court, for the Grand Jury to inspect the conditions and operations of the jail. O.C.G.A. § 15-12-71. By law, the inspection is required to be once a year; however, the District Attorney’s Office has the Grand Jury visit the jail each term of court. In addition, the Sheriff’s is bound by federal guidelines and other agencies inspect and certify the detention center.”