By Arielle Robinson
An outside auditor that Cobb County Sheriff Craig Owens brought in to review the Cobb County Adult Detention Center saw minor issues amid a mostly positive evaluation of the jail.
Jack Ryan, an attorney from the Legal and Liability Risk Management Institute, presented highlights of audit results at the sheriff’s second quarterly briefing held last Wednesday evening.
One of the topics touched upon was mental illness.
Ryan said that many mentally ill people end up in jails because mental institutions are being shut down around the country and Cobb County is not immune from this issue.
Yet, Ryan complimented the Cobb Sheriff’s Office for the programs they have put in place to address certain social and mental needs of those incarcerated.
At the briefing, Colonel Pete Atkins announced that the sheriff’s office currently takes on what they call “detainee dignity,” which consists of programs that Atkins said will change the narrative around incarceration.
The sheriff’s office has carved out compliance dorms, which house well-behaved detainees and military veterans and has an arts program to encourage creative expression.
The department is also focused on mental health. Pending necessary funds, detainees will have 24-hour access to mental health professionals.
“As the jail commander, I have no problem in telling you that many of the people who walk through the door of our jail have no business being here,” Atkins said. “Many need to be in a mental health facility, where they can receive comprehensive mental health treatment.”
A discharge planner would also be provided so that detainees have a clear plan of where they can get needed medications and where to continue their psychiatric treatment post-release.
In June, the sheriff’s office in conjunction with the Urban League of Greater Atlanta began to administer a Department of Justice program that helps young incarcerated fathers gain valuable parenting and career skills.
The first graduates of the program received their completion certificates last week.
Another aspect that Ryan praised Cobb’s sheriff’s department for is what he says is its phenomenal transparency.
“Everything we asked for was immediately provided,” Ryan said. “… Everybody we dealt with was willing to talk to us — from the new correctional officer to everybody all the way up the chain of command, which is refreshing in itself to get that kind of transparency.”
Cobb’s sheriff’s department has been shrouded in secrecy for years, as the widely criticized former Sheriff Neil Warren often dodged demands for accountability from activists who called on him to improve jail conditions.
During Warren’s time as sheriff, 51 people died while incarcerated at the county detention center.
Owens, elected in November, ran his campaign on a promise of transparency and improving the damaged relationship between the sheriff’s office and the public.
Wednesday’s event was the sheriff’s second where he publicly informed the county of what the department is up to.
Amid the praise Ryan heaped upon the department, he also made a few recommendations to improve jail operations, some of which the department has already begun to work on.
The first recommendation was to update some older cameras in the jail. This problem has already partly been taken care of, as the department has installed new Flock cameras at the jail.
Ryan said he was encouraged by the department’s new technology, which includes new Axon Body Cameras and Axon T7 Tasers for deputies.
The auditor also was concerned about preventing contraband from getting into the jail and saw that the department has addressed this with new and improved body scanners.
At the beginning of this month, the sheriff’s office installed Tek84 scanners, which surveys everybody — including officers — for contraband.
Atkins described the Tek84 as a device similar to airport scanners.
Use of force documentation is another aspect that Ryan commended the sheriff’s office for. He said Cobb’s department documents lower tiers of use of force and that the documentation matches the videos. This is opposed to other jails the auditor has visited, where use of force is not documented until it reaches a certain threshold.
Another suggestion was that the sheriff’s office should have a supervisor who is not involved in use of force cases respond to a use of force event by conducting follow-up investigations.
Lastly, Ryan discussed medical protocols in place at the jail.
Ryan said a colleague of his described the jail’s medical infirmary as a small emergency room. The sheriff told Ryan in previous talks that the jail’s budget for medical, dental and mental health is very large. Ryan said the people he saw in the infirmary appeared happy and well-cared for.
The auditor also reported that jail staff carries out necessary cell checks with diligence.
Ryan suggested as an improvement logging reports of detainee’s conditions. For example, if a detainee was given food but did not eat it, that should be recorded. Deputies should also become familiarized with medical conditions so that they can be the medical staff’s eyes and ears, the auditor said.
Doing so would assist medical staff in the case a detainee has a medical emergency.
“This is going above and beyond what a lot of jails do,” Ryan said. “But I know that’s where you want to be.”
Outside of what Ryan discussed, Owens and colleagues at the department presented other changes of note that have taken place under the new administration.
In a three-month period, the office has hired 49 sworn personnel, 16 civilian personnel and promoted 12 people.
Cobb’s sheriff’s department has also sworn in NBA legend Dominique Wilkins as a special deputy sheriff, which was covered in a previous Courier article. Wilkins will act as a community engagement partner.
Owens has also met with county commissioners to request SPLOST funds to improve infrastructure in the department.
With these funds, the sheriff has improved sidewalks and stairs, built the county’s first indoor physical agility test facility and revamped security for the employee section of the jail parking lot and ammunition stockpiles.
“I’ll tell you what, it’s easier for you to break into Fort Knox than get any of our ammunition today,” Colonel David Gallmon said.
In coming weeks, the department’s crime scene investigation unit will be moved into a new facility on jail property. The unit will have new, upgraded equipment.
Amid the alarming rise in COVID-19 cases in Cobb County and nationwide, it was said in the briefing that the jail is also being proactive in its measures taken to monitor and prevent the spread of the disease.
Last week, COVID-19 protocols were restored after 51 incarcerated people and staff tested positive for the virus.
There are six parts to the jail’s protocols, which include intake screening for the virus, a 10-day separation from the general population once someone is booked, regular COVID-19 testing, two mass vaccination clinics, strict use of PPE and information sessions from medical providers.
The sheriff’s department will also be utilizing GovQA, a system used by other county establishments, to help process public records requests.
Owens and his department have completely made over the sheriff’s website and are in the process of creating a sheriff’s office app, which will be ready in about three months.
During the Q & A session held at the end of the briefing, Owens also said that the jail is looking for new food vendors because they have found issues with the food served there.
To watch the full video of the sheriff’s briefing and the jail audit results, click here.
Arielle Robinson is a student at Kennesaw State University. She also freelances for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and is the former president of KSU’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as well as a former CNN intern. She enjoys music, reading, and live shows.