Georgia lawmakers seek jail reform after Reuters investigation

Linda So
·3-min read
The Chatham County Jail sits at sunset in Savannah, Georgia
The Chatham County Jail sits at sunset in Savannah, Georgia

By Linda So

(Reuters) - Georgia lawmakers are pressing for stronger jail oversight after a Reuters investigation identified hundreds of deaths in the state’s county jails and dangerous lapses in inmate medical care.

David Wilkerson, a Georgia state lawmaker who had been planning new jail legislation for the upcoming January session, said he intends to cite Reuters’ findings in his proposed reforms.

As part of an examination of deaths at more than 500 jails nationwide, Reuters found 272 inmate deaths among 13 large Georgia jails over more than a decade. At least half of the deaths were caused by a medical condition or illness, and a quarter by suicide.

The news organization exposed healthcare lapses at the jail in Savannah. Another report explored the 2017 death of Chinedu Efoagui, who died at the Cobb County Adult Detention Center after spending 512 days behind bars without ever being tried on the charges for which he was held.

To read the full investigation, Dying Inside, click https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-jails-deaths

Wilkerson, a Cobb County Democrat, said his proposal will focus on improving mental health care in jails, as well as the disclosure and investigation of in-custody deaths.

“It’s impossible for the jail to investigate themselves. At the end of the day you’re asking someone who did something wrong to look at themselves,” said Wilkerson. “The public trust is not there.”

Wilkerson had begun researching new legislation after the death of Kevil Wingo, a 36-year-old Atlantan who died in the Cobb County jail in 2019. He said he was further moved to propose reforms following the Reuters accounts of Efoagui’s death and others in Georgia jails.

Other state legislators say the spate of jail deaths, particularly involving inmates who had not been convicted of their charges, shows the need for enhanced oversight.

“It is a tragedy. It is malpractice on the part of the state of Georgia, and on the counties,” said Mary Margaret Oliver, a Georgia Democratic lawmaker and former magistrate court judge.

Oliver said substandard mental health care in jails must be tackled when lawmakers convene in January. “Jails are significantly the largest mental health facility in the state,” she said. “And we are not attending to the combination of mental illness, addiction, and significant physical health issues.”

The death of Efoagui, a 38-year-old Nigerian native, highlights such concerns. The software programmer was arrested after suffering a mental breakdown during a traffic stop. As his physical and mental health deteriorated behind bars, he begged for help, but died of a pulmonary embolism.

Many of Efoagui’s friends from Nigeria were unaware of the details of his death after he moved to the United States in 2012 to pursue the American dream. They expressed shock when they learned the full story in the Reuters account.

“Mental illness and the inability to post bond should not cost a life,” tweeted Ogechukwu Eze. “Any life.”

(Reporting by Linda So. Editing by Ronnie Greene)