Georgia is going through a mental health crisis. People with mental illness are not getting the care they need and are ending up in jails and prisons at an alarming rate.
Once incarcerated, their mental health crises are considered bad behavior and are punished. They are surrounded by guards and officers who don’t understand mental health and are not trained to rehabilitate, but to force compliance.
Given this situation, it is shocking, but not surprising, that hundreds of people with mental illness have died in Georgia’s jail cells over the past few years.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Channel 2 Action News and the Georgia News Lab conducted a comprehensive review of jail deaths, and dug to unprecedented depths. Together they reviewed the deaths of more than 500 inmates and detainees in state and local jails in the past ten years.
Some of their findings included that there is no single state or local agency in charge of tracking how many people die in jails each year or how the deaths occur. Also, federal statistics frequently underestimate Georgia’s jail deaths. These two things mean there is little data being collected or analysis being done to inform prison reform policy or promote better training in jails.
If either of the conservative gubernatorial candidates are elected, Georgia can expect more of the same. Brian Kemp only talks about how he wants to lock more people up, not about how broken the criminal justice really is. Casey Cagle has stayed suspiciously silent on the issues of prison reform.
However, Stacey Abrams understands how important it is to have adequate treatments for mental illness, so that our most fragile Georgians aren’t filling up our prisons. Her brother has battled with mental health issues and is currently behind bars. Abrams believes that if her family had had insurance and better ways of helping him address his mental health concerns, he wouldn’t be where he is today.
During Abrams’ time on criminal justice reform task forces, she helped pass changes to reduce sentencing for non-violent offenders, shift Georgia’s policies on private probation, adopt a new juvenile justice code and obtain eligibility for vocational licenses for ex-offenders.
We need a progressive governor to improve conditions for Georgia’s citizens with mental health issues and to lead prison reform and criminal justice reform more broadly. If we elect another conservative, Georgia will continue its legacy of a broken prison system more intent on incarceration than reform.