Activists, police group hope new sheriff will improve Cobb jail conditions

08/20/2020 - Marietta, Georgia - The exterior of the Cobb County Adult Detention Center in Marietta, Thursday, August 20, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
08/20/2020 - Marietta, Georgia - The exterior of the Cobb County Adult Detention Center in Marietta, Thursday, August 20, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren appears to have lost his bid for reelection, giving his critics hope that they could soon see improved conditions at the jail, where 51 inmates have died during Warren’s tenure.

Warren, who has been in office since 2003, appears to have lost his race against Democrat Craig Owens, a police major set to be Cobb’s first Black sheriff. As of Thursday, unofficial results show Owens was ahead by about 40,000 votes and he has declared victory, but Warren has not conceded the race. With only provisional and military ballots outstanding in Cobb, the final vote totals are unlikely to change the outcome of the race.

“There’s a new day; there’s a new sheriff, and we can do things the right way,” Owens said Wednesday. He also spoke of restoring trust in the Sheriff’s Office among the public and deputies alike.

Warren and the sheriff’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Several local and statewide organizations and families of inmates have been pushing for months for Warren and the Sheriff’s Office to provide more details about conditions at the Adult Detention Center. Their efforts picked up steam last year when it was revealed that several inmates died in less than a year.

Jeriene Grimes, president of the Cobb County branch of the NAACP, said her organization hopes to see systemic changes at the Adult Detention Center.

“I think change is good, and we are looking forward to what the future holds with having a new sheriff in Cobb County,” she said.

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Out of the 51 inmates who have died while in custody, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported that nine died since December 2018: Reginald Wilson, Bradley Emory, Jessie Myles, William Kocour, Steven Davis, Kevil Wingo, Christopher Hart, Stephanie McClendon and an unidentified woman whose cause of death has not been released.

Their deaths have sparked criticism from residents, local activists and civil rights organizations, all of whom have called on Warren to address concerns about medical care for inmates and jail staffing levels.

Sally Riddle of the Cobb Coalition for Public Safety said she had feared a victory for Warren would mean that “business could go on as usual." She said she’s hoping a new administration will mean a change in culture at the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office.

“I’m hoping staff will be empowered to report to leadership when they see things happening that should not be done in that particular way so that the culture can change,” she said.

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Improved conditions for inmates should also extend to Detention Center employees, said Steve Gaynor, president of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed Owens. Gaynor said Owens is looking forward to creating a teamwork atmosphere with employees.

“He’s looking forward to working with them to get their input as to what they think works and doesn’t work and understanding their needs,” said Gaynor, who worked on Owens' campaign. “I think it’s going to be a good change.”

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A new sheriff doesn’t mean the work is done, said Christopher Bruce, political director of the ACLU of Georgia. The Cobb sheriff’s office has not been responsive to the ACLU’s Open Records requests for documents about the inmate deaths, and Bruce said he hopes Owens will implement changes that would make the agency more transparent.

The ACLU and the Cobb NAACP and other local organizations over the last year held several town hall meetings where former inmates and families of current detainees recounted their experiences.

Bruce also said the ACLU will make sure that Owens fulfills one of his campaign promises to end the county’s cash bail system that can force the poor who are charged with low-level crimes to sit in jail while awaiting a court date.

“There’s no reason why you should sit in jail because you don’t have money,” he said. “That does not prove your innocence or guilt and it definitely doesn’t determine whether you are a danger to the public.”

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While a win for Owens won’t bring back Kevil Wingo, his family is “pleased with the election results and this new opportunity for justice,” said Timothy Gardner, attorney for Wingo’s family.

Wingo, 36, died Sept. 29, 2019, in an isolation cell from a perforated ulcer, the Cobb County Medical Examiner’s Office said. His family has filed a lawsuit last month against Wellstar Health System, six nurses and three Cobb County Sheriff’s Office deputies, saying his pleas for help inside the jail were ignored.

Gardner has been pushing for the sheriff’s office and Cobb County District Attorney Joyette Holmes to investigate Wingo’s death. Holmes, a Republican who was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp to serve out the unexpired term of Vic Reynolds, was defeated in her bid for her first, four-year term by Democrat Flynn Broady.

Gardner said he is confident that Owens and Broady will investigate Wingo’s death and “we are hopeful that charges will ultimately be brought.”

“The new sheriff has also promised truth and transparency in his administration and we believe that he will deliver on that promise,” he said.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Meris Lutz contributed to this report.

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