Local, federal leaders meet to talk mental health care in jails

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Thousands behind bars in Georgia are suffering from some kind of mental illness. The problem is, few jails or prisons are equipped to give those inmates the help they need, and it's costing communities around the state.

Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher says this is a big issue for the county lock-up. It's not only hitting taxpayers in their wallets, it's also a safety issue when those with mental illness are being cycled through the system and released without getting the help they need.

"Jail is not somewhere that mental health people need to be," said Sheriff Wilcher.

Sheriff Wilcher said the number of inmates suffering from mental illness in his detention center has reached an unacceptable level. Wednesday, he invited Congressman Buddy Carter and County Commissioner Helen Stone to talk about solutions.

Rep. Carter said, "Almost a quarter of the prisoners here are mentally ill. We're not doing them a service, we're not doing the citizens a service."

Rep. Carter says he's all for looking at options to funnel federal aid into state and local facilities. Just a little more than a year ago, mental health experts from around the state talked about this very issue at the first-ever mental health symposium in Savannah.

It was at that gathering that the creation of a diversion center, a facility specializing in mental health care, was proposed.

Helen Stone said, "It was voted on by a large number of people in the break-out groups that this would be a very beneficial thing for this community."

Until that becomes a reality, mental health care expenses will keep piling up for the detention center.

"When they come here to the jail and stay here, that's $70 a day to keep them in jail. Plus I have to give them all the drugs, the psychotropic drugs," said Sheriff Wilcher.

At a minimum of $70 dollars a day, covering around 400 inmates costs taxpayers $28,000 a day.

"They can pay here, or they can pay over here. When you pay over here, you're gonna pay twice as much. You can pay over here to build something, or you keep letting them come to jail and keep paying for them coming to jail," WIlcher said.

The pay now or pay more later was the argument the sheriff made just last week when talking about increasing pay for his deputies to make salaries more competitive as his office battles a staffing deficit.

The number of active inmates in state-run facilities in Georgia with mental health issues:

  1. Fulton County: 815
  2. DeKalb County: 374
  3. Richmond County: 262
  4. Chatham County: 255

The Department of Corrections released these numbers on April 1.

Please click here, if you are interested in the Georgia Department of Corrections profile of mental health inmates.

Copyright 2017 WTOC. All rights reserved.