Chatham Co. officers attacked by inmates diagnosed with mental health issues

CHATHAM CO., GA (WTOC) - For Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher, the number one priority is the safety of his officers - making sure they go home each night to their families.

That's easier said than done when mental health inmates - off their medications - are added to the mix.

On Friday, the sheriff showed me pictures of one officer who just had his head split open by an inmate being escorted to make a phone call. Those pictures are much too graphic for television.

However, videos that were shown to Georgia State Senator Lester Jackson and Congressman Buddy Carter during their tour of the jail Wednesday give all of us a better idea of what happens behind steel doors.

When you're being treated for a mental health issue - from bipolar disorder to schizophrenia - don't get arrested in Chatham County. Whatever assistance you were getting for medication will be cut off before the cell door slams. What happens next is nothing more than the roll of the dice.

Sheriff Wilcher has dozens more violent incidents on camera.

At the jail on Wednesday, I spoke with a recent officer attacked by a mental health inmate. Officer Deandre Gibbs learned the hard way that these inmates are constantly looking for a weakness to exploit. Gibbs was the sole officer in a 30 inmate pod when he was attacked for the first time by a mental health inmate.

"It was in February. I put an inmate out to get on the phone. When he came out, I put leg cuffs on him. He ran out and I talked to him and pulled him to the side and he scratched my face," Officer Gibbs said. I would say it's a learning process for me because that was my first time going through that. So, the next time, I have to face that I know what to do."

Like hundreds of others, this won't be his last inmate attack. You accept that reality, or you leave.

"I felt like I'd be quitting on the team, and I'm not a quitter. I like to keep going, push through it and keep fighting," said Officer Gibbs.

Wednesday, Sheriff Wilcher saw how deep the support for a cure is when Congressman Buddy Carter, State Senator Lester Jackson, and County Commissioner Helen Stone came for a tour of the jail and to hear stories of the infinite potential for violence.

"This is real life, and folks, we are doing a disservice to those who are mentally ill who we are throwing in our jails, and that's not where they need to be," said U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, 1st District, R.

Rep. Carter has vowed to push his Congressional colleagues to dig deeper for funding. Senator Jackson believes getting jailed mental health inmates a constant flow of prescribed medications is possible in weeks.

"There are just a few changes in the law that can make a big difference, not only in the quality of health care for the inmates here, but the overall quality of life after they leave this facility."

In the meantime, Sheriff Wilcher will continue as he has for nearly 30 years now - share his horror stories of revolving door justice.

"I had a guy on Friday that hit one of my officers in the face and busted his face open, and then this morning going to court, he hit another one of my officers, so he got two more felony charges," the sheriff said.

Charges he contends are our fault, not the inmates.

"They arrested a girl Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday for criminal trespassing. She's a mental health person. We let her out of jail and she goes back to the house because she thinks she owns it. Until we can get a place that we can send them and get them to help this person, we can't do anything," Sheriff Wilcher said.

We're paying the price for that inmate in more ways than one: likely $10,000 before she finally gets the help she deserves.

"I would feel better if we were just spinning our wheels but we're not. We're getting further and further behind the longer that we do this."

Everyone speaking at the Detention Center on Wednesday believes in the same initial solution. A facility outside the jail - designed and staffed with those who can keep these minor offense inmates in a state of mind that keeps them out of jail. Right now, it's just talk, but those speaking the language are growing in both number and influence.

Sheriff Wilcher saying it's about $70 a day minimum for every inmate receiving mental health care. Of the 1,800 inmates at the Detention Center, right now, there's up to 350 receiving care. That means it's costing taxpayers about $25,000 a day.

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