Gaps in the criminal justice and mental health systems have turned local jails into warehouses for the mentally ill, often with fatal consequences, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. Along with Channel 2 Action News and the Georgia News Lab, the newspaper conducted one of the most comprehensive reviews of jail deaths ever undertaken in Georgia, reviewing the deaths of more than 500 inmates and detainees in the state’s local jails in the past decade. The investigation found that one in six deaths attributable to something other than natural causes involved inmates who exhibited signs of mental illness. The deaths were often preventable.
Jail staff didn’t recognize threats and warning signs until it was too late, ignored or expressed indifference to an inmate’s crisis or failed to keep troubled inmates under close observation. Thirty of the 168 jail suicides examined by reporters involved inmates where signs of mental illness were noted in public records or press accounts. The number of deaths linked to mental health is likely significantly higher. Studies estimate 90 percent of people who commit suicide suffered mental illness. The 16 homicides accounted for just a small fraction of all jail deaths. Nearly half of those involved inmates who exhibited signs of mental illness. No single state or local agency in Georgia tracks how many people die in jails each year or the details of the cases, and federal statistics routinely undercount Georgia’s jail deaths. The U.S. Justice Department has estimated that nearly two-thirds of all local jail inmates have mental health problems. The prevalence of inmates with a mental illness in Georgia jails seems to have increased over the past decade as the state closed psychiatric hospitals, said Terry Norris of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association. Journalists detailed several cases of inmate deaths.