Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher says the issue of serving mentally ill people who need treatment in the jail is one that needs attention. He says the detention facility is no place for someone who needs treatment and there can be safety issues for the inmate and his staff. “I had a guy in here on Friday that hit one of my officers, busted his face open and then this morning he hit another one of my officers so now he’s got two more felony charges,” said Wilcher.
The sheriff says once someone has that felony charge it makes it more difficult to argue they don’t belong in jail. However, for those charged with misdemeanors, he is advocating for a separate facility where those inmates with mental health issues could be housed away from the main jail.
Wednesday, Wilcher took Chatham County Commissioner Helen Stone, State Senator Lester Jackson and 1st district Congressman Buddy Carter on a tour of the detention facility, which included showing them some videos of recent incidents.
“Folks, we are doing a disservice to those who are mentally ill, we throwing them n our jails and it’s not where they need to be,” said Carter. “If they’re violent, obviously we’ve got to have them here but they need treatment and it’s a disservice to society. This is a challenge we have to deal with. I would feel better if I thought we were just spinning our wheels but we’re not, we’re getting further behind the longer we go and it’s just something that we’ve got to make up our minds that we’re going to address.”
Carter and others acknowledged it’s not going to be easy or cheap. Jackson saying he believes taxpayers could be brought on board. “I think taxpayers want to be protected and want to have a sense of protection in their homes and when they leave their homes and this is an investment for protection of our community,” Jackson told reporters.
Jackson also said he wants to “applaud Sheriff Wilcher and his staff for the amount of changes made in the past two years.”
“I have seen tremendous differences not only with healthcare but the way that the whole structure of this jails works,” said Jackson.
Wilcher says he has worked to make changes, but more needs to be done. He said on any given day, he has 300 to 400 people in the jail who need psychotropic drugs. Also on Wednesday, out of about 1800 inmates, over 100 needed special mental health services in terms of confinement for example.
Chatham County Commissioner Helen Stone is supportive of the sheriff’s goal of housing misdemeanor mental health inmates in a separate facility but knows money continues to be a factor. “It’s our job to keep the streets safe but it’s also our job to look at how we can help people,” she said.
Wilcher says helping those who need help should be a priority. “”We’re trying to do the right thing, we’re desperately trying,” he said.