Posted by Maggie Lee

Georgia prisons are often the official answer to people’s mental health crises. It’s not a good situation for anyone.

It wasn’t right for a woman arrested for crashing into and out of traffic on Tara Boulevard, Democratic MP Sandra Scott’s district.

“To save her life and to save the lives of other people … they had to arrest her,” said Scott. “They had to find a way to bring a criminal charge against her so that she could get help, and they shouldn’t.”

Too often, when someone is experiencing a psychological episode that leads them to do something dangerous, neither the police nor anyone else have a good option.

One or the other charge can keep a person in jail for a day or two – but nothing prevents the same episode from occurring again. And again. The Georgia House Democrats picked up the subject in an online city hall last week.

People are literally being criminalized for mental illness, Georgia NAACP President James Woodall said at the virtual meeting.

“And so now [the person] becomes a product of a very unjust and racist criminal justice system, ”Woodall said.

In the worst case, mental illness and prison collapse result in a death sentence.

Tynesha Tilson saw the 2018 video of her 22-year-old son Shali Tilson dying of dehydration in a Rockdale County prison cell. She said he went through a mental health episode. According to the family, he suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, as documented in a grand jury finding.

The young man was detained for misconduct and suicide watch. He should check in every 15 minutes. The sheriff’s office itself admitted that a MP had forged the suicide record.

“Nobody, nobody opened that door on time to give him water, to help him,” said Tilson. “As my son took his last breath, I saw him fall to the floor in the corner. I saw his head droop. “

She is persecuting Rockdale County, the sheriff, and several MPs in federal court.

There are some suggestions for improvement in the districts and at the state level.

Craig Owens, Cobb County Sheriff (Image credit: Special)

Up in Cobb County, Craig Owens is literally the new sheriff in town, which means he’s now in charge of a prison that has been notorious for the site of 10 inmate deaths in the past year and a half.

Things will be different and Cobb Prison will not do what it did before, Owens said on the online forum, speaking from his office.

“When you walk through these doors, you are in my care and control,” Owens said. “And that is exactly what I need to do: I must treat everyone with dignity and respect, and ensure that they receive the best and proper medical and mental health care that they can receive while under my care and control.”

He has hired a new prison commandant, is working on recruiting more staff and has changed investigative policies. He will be calling the GBI to investigate future prison deaths.

At the state level, some sort of legislation will be passed in about two weeks, said State Representative Dave Wilkerson, D-Power Springs, host of the forum. In the meantime, he plans to have more forums to dig deeper into mental health policy.

There is reason to believe that Republican-dominated legislation and state Democrats might find common ground.

Sheriffs, whether in a red county or a blue county, have no interest in booking the same people over and over for behavior that is due to illness rather than criminal intent. And nobody wants to run a prison occupied by MPs, falsify the minutes, or get the lawsuits or GBI attention.

A non-partisan group of lawmakers and others joined a legislative study committee on behavioral health reform and innovation from 2019.

Their 2020 report includes a section on law enforcement. It suggests sheriff’s help in the form of cash to pay for things like psychiatric drug costs, contracts with mental health providers, crisis intervention training, and more.

But there’s a glimmer of something else too: consider implementing a pilot model where mental health professionals work with law enforcement officers to make emergency calls related to mental health.

Senior Republican of the State House, Blue Ridge spokesman David Ralston, announced this in an opening speech earlier this month. Georgians, Ralston said, “expect us to stop treating mental health for less than what it is: a serious, widespread, and debilitating problem that affects the lives of almost every family in Georgia.”

However, changes will be difficult in the next few months. State legislation is in session, but the pandemic can do two important things: break the session and get lawmakers to keep money in the bank for a rainy day.


See the Georgia Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission 2020 report and presentations and session videos.

Find your Georgia 2021 legislators, contact information, and social media here.