Sheriff rolls out medical monitoring wristbands to curb jail deaths

Cobb County Sheriff Craig Owens said the wristbands act as a means to quickly respond to inmate medical emergencies


By Hunter Riggall
Marietta Daily Journal

MARIETTA, Ga. — In an effort to reduce deaths at the Cobb County jail, Sheriff Craig Owens on Tuesday rolled out a new system of medical monitoring wristbands that track inmates' location and heart rate.

The wristbands were developed by Alabama-based Black Creek Integrated Systems. Owens is implementing them on a limited scale at first, starting with at-risk inmates, such as those in the jail's infirmary. If they prove effective, Owens envisions a future where all of the facility's 3,000-plus inmates are required to wear one.

Deaths at the jail have been a hot-button issue in recent years. In 2019, six people in sheriff's office custody died, sparking protests and media scrutiny. Owens, then a Cobb police major running for sheriff, attacked his predecessor, Republican Neil Warren, for not doing more to prevent the deaths.

Owens, a Democrat, unseated Warren in the 2020 election. Since taking office in January 2021, there have been six inmate deaths under Owens' watch — three of them occurred this year.

"We've had six unfortunate incidents .... And I'm not proud of that," Owens said. "But if you look around in metro Atlanta, we're no different than anyone else. I don't want one death. One death is too much."

Several of the deaths have been suicides. Last November, Owens rolled out a 24/7 psychiatric care program, billed as a first-of-its-kind initiative.

"When people are determined to harm themselves, there's not a lot we can do sometimes," Owens said. "We try to do everything we possibly can to prevent that from occurring.

Owens described the wristbands as "groundbreaking" technology, pitching them as a means to quickly respond to inmate medical emergencies.

Isaac Newton, president of Black Creek, explained that the wristbands monitor heart rates and can track the wearer's location with one to two meter's accuracy.

Over time, the wristbands collect a location history of the inmates who wear them.

Newton said the wristbands are hypoallergenic, waterproof and secured with a clasp that can only be opened using a special tool.

The wristband's battery life is estimated to last about 30 to 90 days, Newton said.

Lack of a heart rate, indicating a medical emergency or a wristband that has been removed, triggers an alarm. The wristbands also include accelerometers that can detect running, fighting or other high levels of activity by the wearer.

"Being an inmate's tough, got a lot of time on your hands," Newton said. "And the natural instinct is to mess with the man, and to mess with the system. So, we have to have some way of knowing that that device is actually affixed to the inmate."

Newton pointed out a network of receivers installed in the infirmary's ceiling, which resemble smoke detectors. The receivers connect the wristband and other tracking devices to a central server and database that can be monitored 24/7.

Newton was asked if the system was hackable.

"Any system that is connected to the internet is possible to be hacked. We have taken a great deal of steps to make sure that it isn't, but the fact of the matter is, it may or may not be connected to the internet, as the sheriff sees fit," Newton said.

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The wristbands use low-energy Bluetooth technology, and the system does not have to be connected to the internet.

Cobb is the first correctional facility to use the devices. An earlier, bulkier version was not commercially successful, Newton said, but was effective in reducing assault rates where implemented.

"Technology is doing what it does. It drops in costs and it increases in capability," Newton said.

Col. Temetris "Pete" Atkins said the sheriff's office began working with Black Creek shortly after Owens took office, more than a year ago.

"The sheriff's been adamant that he wants to make sure that the safety and security of the inmates in our facility is paramount," Atkins said. "So, this is that coming to fruition ... Rome wasn't built in a day."

Newton demonstrated other devices his firm makes, including one that jail staff can wear on their belts. That device is trackable, includes an alarm button, and has a "man down feature" designed to detect if the device is sideways for more than a few seconds.

Another small, circular, trackable device, which Newton called an "asset tag," can be attached to items such as kitchen knives or key rings.

Owens declined to estimate the cost of implementing the wristbands for all inmates, saying it was too early to know how many devices his office might purchase.

Newton said prices depend on whether the client buys or leases the device. The wristbands will probably be sold for about $100 per unit, he said.

"We won't pay a penny until the sheriff is satisfied with this particular equipment," added Col. Atkins.

Newton said inmate deaths are increasing in the U.S., which incarcerates more people than any other country. He attributed that trend to staffing issues and a dearth of resources.

"What we know empirically, is that inmate in-custody deaths are increasing. ... Society is going to have to figure out how they're going to come to grips with it," Newton said.

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