Ga. county jail debuts 24/7 inmate psychiatric program
Jail chief Col. Temetris Atkins said his staff was "screaming for this type of program"
By Chart Riggall
Marietta Daily Journal
MARIETTA, Ga. — Cobb County Sheriff Craig Owens lifted the curtain and snipped the ribbon Monday on a new initiative which will, for the first time, provide 24/7 psychiatric services to jail inmates.
Joined by a bevy of lawmakers, county officials, physicians, and jail staff, Owens said the program is the first of its kind in Georgia and touted the partnership with provider Wellpath Care as a win for the safety of both inmates and officers.
Under the initiative, Wellpath — a Nashville-based company which provides healthcare for government agencies around the country — will have three psychiatrists and a nursing team available around the clock for inmates. Owens said that after a string of inmate deaths in the Cobb jail over recent years, some of them tied to mental health crises, activists have pressured him on the issue since he took office in January.
"With over 70% of our inmates in our facility having mental health issues ... we knew it was a needed program," Owens said.
Prior to the program, the sheriff's office did not have any in-house mental health staff members, and outside resources weren't available 24/7. Wellpath's physicians will also put an increased emphasis on conditions which are more common among inmates — substance abuse, recovery, and suicide.
The immediate beneficiaries will be inmates, but Owens' jail chief, Col. Temetris Atkins, said his staff was "screaming for this type of program."
"Can you imagine how frustrating it is to have someone that you can't help?" Atkins said. "You know, we attack it from a security standpoint, but ... we don't have the ability to attack it from a clinical standpoint."
Wellpath executives said the program will reduce recidivism and provide more "soft landings" for people leaving the criminal justice system. Inside the jail, physicians will deal both with crisis situations and lower-grade care for less severe mental illnesses.
"Jails across this country have become surrogate psychiatric hospitals. The needs are absolutely immense," said Greg Smith, Wellpath's vice president of mental health.
State Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, credited Owens' initiative on the issue and said he hopes Cobb will serve as a model for other jurisdictions.
"They're dealing with some tough situations," Wilkerson said of the officers. "So this will provide them with some of the tools they need. Because they are not— they can't do both. They can't be a mental health professional and do their job."
The added healthcare will also tie into Cobb County's accountability courts, according to Superior Court Chief Judge Robert Leonard. While patient privacy laws limit what issues can be addressed in court, treating inmates before they leave jail will offer a head-start on helping them reenter society.
Following a news conference and ribbon cutting, Atkins led lawmakers and media down to the wing of the jail which will be set up as an ad-hoc psychiatric ward. A central monitoring room is ringed by a series of cells where inmates can be isolated for stabilization and monitoring.
Chatting among the crowd inside the jail, Wilkerson said he expects to see new legislation advance on mental health and inmate protections when the legislative session rolls around next year.
"It comes down to funding," he said. "We've got a surplus of a couple billion dollars in the state. We've got some options. It's just a matter of prioritizing it."
The sheriff's office, meanwhile, previously told the MDJ it has budgeted around $2 million per year for mental health services. Owens defended the price tag as a relatively small investment, compared with the potential consequences of cutting corners on inmate care.
"By me not providing the care that someone needs, and then being sued for not doing it, that one lawsuit could be $15, $20 million dollars — nowhere (near) the amount of money I'm spending," he said. "And I can tell you, psychiatrists are not cheap. If you ever go sit on that couch, you'll see what I'm talking about."
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